Stage is set for Sarries to bring back Goode times

A 'workhorse' full-back aims to display his throroughbred rugby pedigree in the Premiership final today, he tells Chris Hewett
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The Independent Online

The way Alex Goode tells it, the current Saracens team consists of "14 workhorses and a hooker", the hooker in question being Schalk Brits, whose penchant for tripping the light fantastic across the mudheaps of England might have earned him a reputation as a flash git had his rugby been even marginally less than sensational.

Yet Goode is selling himself short. As workhorses go he is one of the thoroughbreds, and if he turns out to be anything like as good an outside-half as he is a full-back, the likes of Jonny Wilkinson will soon be headed for the knacker's yard.

Saracens intend to move the 22-year-old upfield into the No 10 position from the start of next season. As recently as a few months ago, Goode could barely wait. Now, he finds himself torn. "I'd always seen myself as an outside-half and while I understood the argument that time spent at full-back would help my decision-making in the long run, I was a bit unsure how well it would work for me," he says. "As it turns out, I couldn't have wished for anything better. I certainly didn't expect this degree of improvement and now I'm here, I'm a little reluctant to lose the position.

"I've been picked as a 10 by the England Saxons for this summer's Churchill Cup tournament, so I'll be interested to see how I go. I still like the cat-and-mouse aspect of playing outside-half and I think my skills suit the role. But I don't want to jump in too soon. We have some really talented 10s in this country – Shane Geraghty, Danny Cipriani, Ryan Lamb – but they all seem to have hit a plateau after flying high very quickly. If I'm going to change, I want the change to be gradual. Patience is an important virtue in this game, and I'd like to think it's one of my better qualities." This evening, he will strap up his busted thumb – "Do you mind if we don't shake hands?" he asks, apologetically – and confront the might of Leicester, the reigning champions and hardy annuals of the title race, in the Guinness Premiership final at Twickenham. It is Saracens' biggest match in a dozen years: the last time they experienced anything like this, their team had a seam of gold running through it: Philippe Sella at centre, Michael Lynagh at outside-half, Francois Pienaar on the flank. "I must have been nine or 10," Goode says. "I remember the players, but not the game [the 1998 Tetley's Bitter Cup victory over Wasps]."

He had better things to think about then, not least his starring role with the Cambridge Under-11s. "I played all my mini-rugby and youth rugby there," he recalls, "right up until I went to Oakham School [the renowned rugby nursery in Rutland]. I was always drawn to team sports rather than individual ones, perhaps because my family is full of successful badminton players: national champions, Commonwealth Games medallists and Olympians. As for my mum, she played Junior Wimbledon. I thought: 'If I go for a racket sport, I won't even be the best in my family, let alone best in the world'."

A good enough footballer to find his way on to Ipswich Town's books as a teenager, he found rugby taking over when the national age-group selectors took a liking to him. Leicester would have been the obvious club for him, being an Oakham type: Lewis Moody had studied there, and Tom Croft was two years above Goode. But for some reason best known to himself, the renowned talent scout Dusty Hare passed him over. "He didn't push for me to go there, so I spent a pre-season training at Bath instead," Goode says. "I enjoyed it, but Saracens also expressed an interest. Mark Mapletoft, who had a really good reputation, wanted to mentor me and as it was closer to home, it made sense to try my luck there."

It was Eddie Jones, who coached his native Australia to the 2003 World Cup final and helped South Africa win the trophy four years later, who fast-tracked Goode into Premiership rugby. "He was the one who really set me working on my skills," Goode continues. "He pushed me so hard in training, forcing me to kick, to pass, to tackle. He wasn't picking me for the team, mind you. Not at first. But when he did give me my chance, I had the reassurance of knowing I was up to it. I'm grateful to him for many things."

Then Jones left, suddenly. So suddenly that no one in the Saracens squad had the first inkling of what the hell was going on, or why. "I wouldn't say it petrified me, but I was definitely nervous when the new regime, led by Brendan Venter, came in and informed us of their plans," Goode admits. "Anyone who says he wasn't isn't telling the truth. It was a very strange time. I was sitting there wondering whether I was going to be picked above some South African." He sought out the recently retired Saracens flanker Richard Hill, who had taken on a back-room role at the club, and picked his brains. "I never felt I was in danger of being cast out, but I don't like to trust too early and there was definitely some scepticism there. Richard was so steady, so solid in his thinking. He helped me work things out.

"Brendan was very upfront and very direct, and his approach took some getting used to. But he was completely straight and he delivered on everything he told us. The South Africans he brought in weren't has-beens, but people who were hungry and eager and wanted to add something to the club. The first day in training, Brendan and Andy Farrell were straight out there, hammering into each other and showing us how it should be done. It was as if they were saying: 'We'll never ask you to do anything we wouldn't have done ourselves'."

That was a little over a year ago, and if Goode has not looked back, neither have Saracens. "I think we're more united now than we once were," he says. "We have these wonderful facilities in St Albans and people have moved into town in big numbers. Before, the players were all spread out: Hampstead, Harpenden, Hatfield. Now we're much closer knit and we spend a lot of time together, after matches and through the week. I've never seen so many people desperate to come training. It might be cold and nasty but no one gets down about it. We're very close and there are lots of pats on the back. We're not quite like the French – we don't kiss – but everything else is accepted."

You might call it a feel-Goode situation, and it will take more than a fracture dislocation of the thumb to stop him enjoying himself to the full against Leicester today, even though he knows the injury will be targeted. "When you see the way Jacques Burger tackles," he says, referring to the wild-looking Namibian flanker who has brought so much of value to Saracens in recent months, "it's not the done thing to moan about a thumb injury. There again, he might be a bad example. When you've spent a lifetime tackling lions in the bush, tackling people is easy."