Hill protege wants place at top table

Saracens are flying high and Saull can follow in the footsteps of legendary flanker to earn England call
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The Independent Online

A café in St Albans a couple of days before Christmas, and Andy Saull's eyes are gleaming as if he was Tiny Tim with his nose pressed to a toy-shop window. The subject is Saull's mentor, Richard Hill, and this is a present-day Saracens flanker describing one of the game's greats. "It wasn't the big hits that made him a top openside," says Saull. "He'd rarely smoke someone, but at the bottom of every ruck, whenever there was a turnover or his team would be awarded a scrum, up would scramble Hilly, mud on his face and bruises around his eyes. Bit by bit that's what I'm trying to learn."

Saull clearly finds it an inspiration to learn from HRHRH, as Saracens devotees dubbed Hill, whose main role at Saracens is as a corporate schmoozer, up to and beyond his retirement in 2008. Hill, in return, has tipped his 21-year-old charge to move up the England pecking order when the revised senior and Saxons squads are named in mid January. The word is that John Wells, the England forwards coach, was at the club's training ground last week although Saull says, "I didn't see him" as if he were talking abut the first cuckoo of spring.

Saull has however had a recent chat with Stuart Lancaster, the Saxons' coach, and all this should mollify Brendan Venter, Saracens' director of rugby, who had publicly invited the national management to contact the young Englishmen – principally backs Noah Cato and Alex Goode alongside Saull – in his Premiership-topping team. "I don't think I'm ready to be thrown in for England yet," says Saull, whose solitary Saxons cap against Portugal last February was when half the Premiership players had club matches. Perhaps it is worth remembering Hill made his Test debut at the age of 23.

It may seem perverse to be talking England and the English when the headline news has been Saracens' 13 South African-born players and coaches, the majority including Venter recruited since the heavy investment by the SAIL group 20 months ago. Time will tell if Saull's presence is tokenism – he has just extended his contract by three years – but he is solid Sarries stock. Brought up in Birds of a Feather Essex where it doubles as the suburbs of north-east London, he and his brother played for Woodford RFC, which was their dad's club too. Andy appeared for Saracens' academy at 15 and he'd nailed a first-team place under Venter's predecessor Eddie Jones even before this season's remarkable run of one defeat (away to Toulon) in 17 matches.

Venter's cull of players last spring was Friends Disunited for Saull – "I'm not going to say it was a good thing some of my mates had to move clubs" – but it is fascinating how those who remained have been galvanised. Grinding out wins, many by narrow margins, a strong team spirit encompasses new signings like Italy prop Carlos Nieto and South African forwards Schalk Brits and Ernst Joubert.

As a squad they chant and dance a kind of haka after matches, at the cricketer Justin Langer's suggestion that they needed a team song. "There is no animosity," says Saull. "Maybe one of the South Africans will curse in Afrikaans when something goes wrong but if I'm on a table with five of them they'll talk in English; they won't exclude me. You hear of clubs like Leicester, fighting on the training field. And that's a brilliant attitude but at our club it's almost the opposite. You're pleased for the guy wearing the shirt." London Irish in Reading today and Leicester at Vicarage Road next Saturday will give Saracens hugely significant mid-season tests. Saull is on the bench today and is excited about a first meeting with Lewis Moody, the Leicester and England openside.

Saull has already made an impression on the England – and Saracens – captain. "I've roomed with Steve Borthwick on loads of away trips since he came to Saracens last year," Saull says. "They stuck us together to help me out, to see the depth of preparation he goes into.

"When he was new to the club he felt a lot of pressure but he's come out of his shell. When I've got in a bit late he's been able to laugh, rather than saying, 'What are you doing'?"

Hill always knew what he was doing, even when he shifted around the back row to accommodate others. Saull is shorter and lighter than his hero at 6ft 1in and 15st 10lb but moves with the same stooped gait and ceaseless workrate. Venter says: "They told me Andy's a walking penalty, but I haven't seen that." Saull says: "Where Hilly helps me is in the small aspects, the one-per-centers. Perhaps at a ruck I've cleared someone and let him go and he's managed to fold round the far side and make a tackle. If I'd held that guy's shirt another second he wouldn't have been able to get that line." And there's that gleam in the eyes again.