'Silver spoon' Saracens take relaxed approach to Premiership play-offs
Contrast in attitudes as Saints try to avoid fourth semi-final defeat in row
Saracens are the only top-flight club in Britain and Ireland to be unbeaten at home this season, but if they fail to extend that record in the Premiership play-offs against Northampton today it will leave England's biggest spenders without a trophy for the second year running. Does the thought of missing out perturb Owen Farrell, the 2011 champions' young England fly-half and forthcoming British Lion?
"It is important, but something that's always talked about here is the memories made throughout the season," he said. "It's not win, lose or draw, it's about how everyone works hard for each other."
To some this may smack of a cop-out; a fall-back position in the event of failure. To others it is a refreshing, rugby-relevant antidote to the emotionless philosophy of "Winning is everything, second is nowhere". The way Saracens tell it, looking after their players' wellbeing is the priority, and if a knockout match such as today's at Allianz Park, their new home in north London, goes against them, well, hey, they've had a great time and become better people.
Witness the team-bonding trips to Miami, Munich, Hamburg, Cape Town, Abu Dhabi and, most recently, Verbier. "Of course we'd be gutted to lose, absolutely gutted," says Alex Sanderson, the forwards coach who joined Saracens as a flanker in 2004. "But we've said this to the lads: we've already achieved something brilliant, in the times that we've had, the incremental progress we've made, the kids that have been born, the people who've been picked for the Lions. If it just came down to winning a cup it would be a very sad sport."
There are many elements to the Saracens "project", which in simplistic terms was conceived jointly by Brendan Venter when he arrived as director of rugby in 2009 and Ed Griffiths, the chief executive who in a previous job marketed the Springboks during the Rainbow Nation's home World Cup victory in 1995. The coaches – led by the zealous Venter's successor, the Ulsterman (and trained lawyer) Mark McCall – subscribe to the so-called "golden circle" applied to successful businesses such as Apple, in which the "what" and the "how" revolve around the "why": the reasons you do what you do.
The club's public face ranges from dozens of Olympics-style volunteers to songs borrowed from Les Misérables or penned by Right Said Fred – plus the irritating (or is it catchy?) "Here We Go" – and a drag-artist opera singer belting out "Nessun Dorma" in the last five minutes of a match against Exeter (it's never over till the fat lady sings – geddit?). The announcer for the visit of the reigning champions, Harlequins, hailed the Saracens players with, "Welcome the soon-to-be Premiership champions".
Whether you find it funny or foam-at-the-mouth, it all comes at a cost, and in the face of annual losses of £5 million, South African investment has been crucial. One rival Premiership chief executive estimates Saracens' spending in reaching the play-offs for four years in a row to have been £60m. The Northampton players meeting their Saracens counterparts in the England squad are said by Sanderson to tease them for their "silver spoon" existence.
From being historically ignored by the England selectors, Saracens have ushered Farrell, Brad Barritt, Alex Goode, Mouritz Botha and Mako Vunipola to their first caps, with Joel Tomkins next in line, while Andy Farrell and Paul Gustard were called to coach the national side.
Northampton are proudly turning a profit, but they are losing their prized props Soane Tonga'uiha and Brian Mujati to France next season. Saracens have recruited Harlequins' highly rated tighthead James Johnston to go with their Lions squad props Vunipola and Matt Stevens, and Sanderson argues the fly-half Charlie Hodgson could have commanded a bigger wage in France but liked the Saracens style. In return, he and other possible recruits submit to psychoanalytical profiling.
"We recruit on character, not just performance," says Sanderson. "Other clubs are more about the pay cheque and less about the joy and playing for your mates. We invite the player's wife in because it's important she feels part of the club. Ed Griffiths takes them shopping at Christmas time. Happy wife, happy life."
Tonga'uiha almost joined Sarries a couple of years ago, but instead he will do his damnedest alongside Mujati today to prevent this being their last Saints appearance and a fourth successive semi-final defeat. Are other clubs envious of Saracens? "Most people probably are, especially of the mid-season trips," says Tonga'uiha. "It's living up to the London life and, fair play to Saracens, it's working, they've finished top of the league. I'm not bothered by it. When we want team-bonding we have a lunch down the pub."
Saracens' defence is the best in the Premiership but they lost their second Heineken Cup semi-final, to Toulon at Twickenham this month, with a spate of individual errors. Farrell says of his forward pass when a try looked on: "You watch things back and feel guilty but all I know is I'm still getting better. It never stops, making improvements."
Saracens v Northampton Saints is on ESPN today, kick-off 3pm
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