The greater Goode lies behind Sarries' success

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The Independent Online

On the third floor of a City of London office building, behind vast panes of glass below which anxious human ants scurry the cramped streets of commerce, Saracens are plotting their pursuit of the Premiership title. There are no tackle bags here; no whiteboards with positions marked by an X, certainly no scrum machines. Instead Alex Goode, the talented young full-back, twiddles a pencil in concentration as he works out how much to charge a yachtsman to insure a £250,000 boat.

To the 22-year-old Goode and eight of his fellow Saracens, this work placement at multi-national insurance firm Allianz has become commonplace. It's part of a personal development programme run by the club for the past two years: and it's unique in British rugby, according to its manager David Priestley, and possibly in world sport.

Rugby at the top level used to be played by solicitors, doctors, miners and dockers. In the first years after the game went professional in 1995 the players would idle their downtime away, playing pool or twiddling thumbs. They soon realised that a rugby career was only fun while it lasted. "I'm very aware of my rugby mortality," says Duncan Bell, the 36-year-old Bath prop who has been running a mortgage advisory business.

Mindful of the danger of going from scrum to scrapheap, the Rugby Players' Association have employed six player development managers – the latest two in a new £2.7m funding deal with Premiership Rugby and the Rugby Football Union – between their 12 clubs. Damian Hopley, the RPA chief executive, says: "There is an overwhelming sense that the first generation of players who have only known rugby could do much more to prepare themselves for the next stage of their careers."

However, the RPA admit Saracens are ahead of the game, with 40 of their 49-man squad gaining meaningful work experience, running their own business or in formal education. Priestley says: "I won't rest until it is 100 per cent. It is voluntary but we do ask for reasons why a player is not taking part." Speakers visiting the club have included Sir Jackie Stewart, cricketer Justin Langer and, last week, the boxer Billy Schwer. Players "speed-date" with chief executives at networking events and practise public speaking.

The crucial and distinctive claim Priestley makes for his programme is that it does not only prepare players for life after rugby, important though that is. "It gives Saracens benefits now," he says. "It makes players emotionally more rounded and resilient. It smoothes out the highs and lows of winning and losing, and freshens them up for training.

"This does not mean they are unambitious or non-responsive. But if your whole being is identified by whether you drop a ball or not, that can be quite an unstable existence."

In a week when England's full- back Ben Foden has been keeping his head down after an arrest for allegedly kicking a taxi, the sight of his international understudy Goode with his head over a calculator tapping in percentages is, perhaps, a reassurance.

Meeting the Allianz chief executive to round off their fifth day working with the company, Goode and his team-mates discuss motivation and performance. The recent Japanese earthquake, they hear, could give rise to £8 billion of insurance claims.

A statistic relevant to the remainder of their season is that second-placed Saracens, who are on a run of six Premiership wins and host Bath today, have met last year's fellow semi-finalists Leicester and Northampton eight times in the league in the past 12 months and won seven of them – a remarkable improvement on days gone by. But as every underwriter knows, the devil is in the detail; Sarries' one defeat in that sequence was to a last-minute try by Leicester in the Premiership final last May.

Their loss adjustment has been to work harder on the basics and tactics that will bind them together when margins are tight.

Saracens v Bath is on ESPN today, kick-off 2.15pm

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