Gaffney the wanderer finds welcome sanctuary in Vicarage Road madhouse

Chris Hewett meets the latest in a line of coaches to take on daunting task of bringing success to big-spending Saracens
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The Independent Online

The graveyards of the world are full of "indispensable" men. Anyone doubting the truth of this assertion should visit the Saracens club, who have spent much of their recent history operating as a cemetery of the ego. Some of the high-profile entombments at Vicarage Road took place so suddenly, there was barely time for a farewell toast. Steve Diamond knows the feeling. Others were painful, drawn-out affairs: Mark Evans, Francois Pienaar and Wayne Shelford all suffered the agonies of hell as their best-laid plans were buried six feet under. One way or another, a fair bit of grim reaping has taken place down Watford way.

As trends go, this would be a good one to buck. None better, in fact. Is Alan Gaffney the man to do it? Everyone at Saracens, from the investor-in-chief, Nigel Wray, and the chief executive, Mark Sinderberry, to the bloke who brushes out the dressing-room loo, is praying for an answer in the affirmative. They are sick and tired of change at Sarries, where day-to-day life has been about as stable as a rogue consignment of plutonium. Not to put too fine a point on it, there has been more than a whiff of the madhouse about the place. Wray wanted to create an institution when he bought into the club more than a decade ago and, while he certainly succeeded, it was not quite in the way he had imagined.

Gaffney is different from the usual suspects, bringing with him a depth of experience and a technical mastery way beyond that of any of his big-name predecessors. Only his good friend and colleague Eddie Jones, who spent three highly productive months at Saracens at the butt-end of last season, can be said to have trodden similar ground. The two men speak the same language, not simply because they are fellow Australians but because they worked together at Wallaby level until Jones was dumped in particularly ruthless fashion last December. It says something for the feverish nature of rugby life in Sydney that he chose Sarries as a bolt-hole.

It was Jones, obliged to return to Australia to honour a contract with the Queensland Reds, who pointed Saracens in the direction of his old partner. "I was at home in Sydney, unsure as to what might be happening career-wise, when Eddie phoned," Gaffney recalled. "I wasn't without options, exactly - there were a couple of possibilities domestically and some interest from overseas - but nothing had been firmed up. At the time, I was keen to stay in Australia and spend some time with friends. I'd been away for nine years, give or take six months. But Eddie had clearly taken something from his short time in the Premiership and felt the job would suit me. As both my children were living and working in London, it seemed as good a move as any.

"What did I find when I arrived for the interview? I found impressive people, people with a vision. I haven't a clue what went on previously and I really don't know precisely to what extent Eddie righted the ship. What I do know is that the players had great respect for what he achieved, which didn't surprise me one little bit. He has a work ethic you wouldn't believe - he's one of those blokes who starts at 4.30 in the morning and goes home whenever. I don't get up quite that early, but we're sticking with a lot of the things he put in place. I'm a great supporter of Eddie and always will be."

Unlike Pienaar or Shelford, two of the towering figures in the post-war history of the sport, Gaffney has earned the right to his shot at making something of Saracens. If the South African and the New Zealander were fast-tracked beyond their immediate coaching and organisational abilities, the Australian has slow-tracked himself to a position of eminence. He worked with the likes of David Campese, Simon Poidevin and the Ella brothers at the Randwick club in Sydney; he served time in Japan and Singapore; he captivated the likes of Brian O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy with his technical know-how during an inspiring stint at Leinster; he guided neighbouring Munster to a Heineken Cup semi-final.

Randwick was, and remains, close to his heart - every bit as close as the Coogee Surf Club, where he has held a membership these past 40 years. He was an outside-half in his playing days and partnered Ken Catchpole, the great Wallaby scrum-half, in the late 1960s.

"We were together in '68, when Colin Meads effectively ended Ken's career," Gaffney said, referring to the flint-hearted All Black's wishboning of Catchpole at a ruck. "Ken had one leg trapped in a ruck; Meads grabbed hold of the other one and pulled. It was just about the most cowardly act I ever witnessed. Ken tried to come back, but he was nowhere near the same player. We'd been having a bloody good season until then, too." Did he think Meads might have been cited in this day and age? "Cited? I reckon he'd have got life."

Not that Gaffney is an advocate of prissy rugby. Anything but. If Saracens have earned a positive reputation for anything in recent seasons, it is for their aggression up front, where the likes of Kevin Yates and Cobus Visagie have scrummaged their weight in support of a strategy based around set-piece proficiency. Yet Gaffney was disturbed by what he felt was a lack of physicality in last weekend's Premiership opener with Wasps at Twickenham - a game that went the way of the former European champions, albeit by fractions.

"We need to address that area of our game," he said, aware that tomorrow's visit to Bristol promises to be every bit as punishing. "Maybe it was me. We did very little in the way of contact work during the week leading into the match - it's a long season here in England and it isn't feasible to keep bashing each other session after session. It simply can't happen.

"But I might have had the balance wrong, because we produced a performance of which none of us could be particularly proud. If we're going to be hard markers on ourselves, we have to look closely at the areas where we let ourselves down. That's what we've been doing over the last few days."

All of which led neatly into ideological waters. After coaching in Australia, where everything is geared towards success at Test level, and in Ireland, with its provincial system similarly controlled from the centre, how does he get his head around the Premiership and its fiercely independent clubs, one of which will be relegated come season's end? Gaffney has seen most things, but the Big Drop is a new one on him. Can he sleep at night?

"I don't buy all the arguments I hear," he said. "Some say relegation is good because it forces people to play for survival, that it shows us who can do it when the chips are really down, but I don't necessarily see it like that. In the professional game, these blokes are playing for their contracts whether relegation is there or not. In that sense, their arses are always on the line. And it seems to me that if relegation was removed and we had some certainty in its place, the owners would approach life very differently. At the moment, they're investing in something that might disappear next April. That's a tough ask.

"There again, relegation does bring with it a kind of pressure I haven't experienced previously. Coaching in the Premiership is a challenge, there's no doubt about it. I always watched the coverage when I was in Ireland, and I knew then that the Celtic League was not on the same competitive level. It was decent enough, but it didn't have the edge. For the Irish provinces, success in Europe is everything. In England, it's a slightly different story. I can see why some people here identify the Premiership as the tournament they most want to win. There is a partisan passion, an intensity about it that I haven't found anywhere else in the world."

That intensity has proved too much for Saracens on too many occasions, despite the millions invested by the ever-enthusiastic Wray. Had they performed to the level of their funding, they would have been lapping Wasps or London Irish by now instead of trailing a circuit behind. This is not lost on Gaffney.

"We've set ourselves a target of finishing in the top four and I believe it to be a realistic one, but we'll have to play some particularly good rugby to get ourselves up there," he acknowledged. "What we have not said is that we'll win the Premiership. There again, if we make the play-offs, everything will be up for grabs. I can tell you this much: we'll do what we do with a sense of ambition. That doesn't mean throwing the ball to the wings at every opportunity. It means we'll set out to win every game in whatever way suits us best."