The England coach Stuart Lancaster had some nice things to say about Saracens today, but those sentiments are unlikely to be shared by the rest of the Premiership. The nomadic Londoners, on the point of moving to a home of their own in Barnet after years of wandering around the outskirts of the capital, struck a couple of mighty blows in the transfer market, badly wounding two of their nearest and dearest in the process.
Billy Vunipola, the 20-year-old Wasps No 8 who has been one of the talks of the town this season, signed a long-term contract with Sarries, as did the Harlequins tight-head prop James Johnston, perhaps the single most influential member of the reigning champions’ pack. With those two operating at the sharp end, Saracens will be a very serious force next term.
Both Vunipola and Johnston are Pacific islanders, but while the latter plays his Test rugby for Samoa, the back-rower from Tonga has declared for England, just like his brother Mako, who operates at loose-head prop for Saracens and made a highly encouraging red-rose debut during the Twickenham internationals last autumn. Neither Vunipola can be said to be short in the pounds and ounces department, while Johnston is on the large side of vast. When it comes to the "speak your weight" contest at Premiership level, there will be only one winner from now on.
Lancaster was in London – in docklands to be precise, at Millwall RFC’s splendid new clubhouse - to launch the governing body’s “RugbyForce” initiative, which is aimed at helping hundreds of grass-roots teams across the country improve their infrastructure and develop community-based business plans. By coincidence, he spent much of his time mulling over Saracens’ outstanding Heineken Cup victory over the powerful French club Racing Metro and, in particular, the phenomenal kicking of the current England outside-half Owen Farrell, who took 11 shots at goal and never once looked like missing.
“Owen has the competitive fire you look for in an elite player – something that is rare to find in someone of his age,” he said of the 21-year-old midfielder. “But he’s also as grounded an individual as you could wish to meet. From the moment we brought him into the England camp, his maturity shone out. When we dropped him to the bench in South Africa last summer he didn’t sulk or moan, because he understood the reasons why. He has a great role model (in his father Andy, one of Lancaster’s colleagues on the red-rose staff) and is coached well a club level.
“There are a number of teams who are making a big contribution to the England representative squads and that includes Saracens, who are now right up there in terms of numbers and are producing a lot of born-and-bred talent. The quality of coaching and the positive nature of the environment there is testament to how they have developed in recent seasons.”
All that is true. But right now, the likes of Quins and Wasps regard them less as talent-spotters than as talent-raiders.
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