Champions have a heart of South African gold
Sunday 29 May 2011
That last minute must have seemed an eternity for Saracens. The clock was approaching the 80th minute when Leicester won a line-out 10 metres from the Saracens line and set in motion the series of drives which stood as a metaphor for the entire Aviva Premiership final.
More than 30 times a Leicester body forced itself inches forward, down the narrowest of channels, before, finally, they went wide and won a penalty which gavethem a second chance for redemption. All match, the team that has dominated the Premiership this decade – this was their seventh successive final – had failed to find the open space in which to set their runners free.
The final minute turned itself into eight and still Saracens held, before winning the penalty that gave them the title. This is what Nigel Wray, their original benefactor who is still hugely committed to the club after 15 years, invested his millions for – before the starry days of Michael Lynagh, Philippe Sella, FrancoisPienaar and co gave way to the hard-bitten earthiness and community spirit that Brendan Venter coached into the squad before he stood down as the director of rugby midway through this season.
Venter's fingerprints were all over the club, said his successor, Mark McCall, and it was a reflection echoed by Wray: "We are lucky somehow to have an outstanding group of human beings, on and off the field," the club chairman said. "I didn't realise how special people like Lynagh, Sella and Pienaar were but now we have that throughout the team, and all that was kicked off by Brendan Venter."
How curious that a Springbok reject (unlike Pienaar, the 1995 World Cup-winning captain) has played such a notable part in the maturation of Saracens. Schalk Brits made three Test appearances for South Africa in 2008 but it became apparent that he was not to be a fixture and he arrived in London the following year.
While we are on the subject of Brits, how can any side in which he plays be labelled boring? It is a charge which has been levelled against Saracens, because of their durable defence and their failure to score as many tries as, for example, Leicester. But any side which uncovers as much space as they did yesterday deserves to become champions.
Brits was at the heart of it. No other hooker covers as much ground, at such speed. You will find him at auxiliary full-back, as first receiver, quite apart from being a member of the line-out operation which gave Saracens such a solid base. Midway through the first half, Brits was receiving treatment after a heavy tackle from Martin Castrogiovanni and Craig Newby. It took more than a minute before the Saracens medical team were happy for him to continue but barely had play resumed than the hooker was making the crossfield run that created a try for James Short.
And when Leicester showed signs of breaking clear, who was there to stop Alesana Tuilagi? "It's not just what people see, he does a lot more besides," McCall said. "There's the runs, he throws the ball beautifully but he contests the ball and he defends and defends."
It was almost inevitable that Brits would be man of the match but Owen Farrell ran him close. "I can't describe what happened today," Brits said. "People see it as workwe see it as creating new memories. When I came here, Saracens promised me the time of my life and they have kept their promise."
Such experience and youth give Wray hope that yesterday was a beginning. The winning of the Premiership removes the monkey from the Saracensback in a way that their only previous trophy, the 1998 Tetley's Bitter Cup, did not. The winning of a league givesa hallmark and Wray is determined that Saracenswill not rest on their laurels.
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