Andy Saull: 'Irish match will be my toughest test'

As he faces a fierce battle tomorrow, Saxons and Sarries flanker Andy Saull tells Chris Hewett how Richard Hill taught him the 'dark arts' of his trade
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The Independent Online

The Premiership match between Saracens and Leicester at Vicarage Road earlier this month, smack in the middle of the cold snap, is remembered for one thing and one thing only: Brendan Venter's lava-hot soliloquy on the subject of refereeing and the laws, during which he used a number of poetic devices – assonance, alliteration, a touch of iambic pentameter, a heroic couplet or two – to make his point.

The disciplinary officer Judge Jeff Blackett probably recognised all of them, being an educated sort of chap, but it did not stop him bringing in a guilty verdict against the former Springbok.

There was, however, something else about the game that stuck in the memory. Forty minutes before the former Springbok embarked on his director of rugby's diatribe, another World Cup winner on the back-room staff, the revered England flanker Richard Hill, could be heard offering an opinion or two, this time about his successor in the Saracens back row.

"Andy Saull is doing really well," Hill said with a smile of satisfaction. "He's unrecognisable from the player we saw here last season. It took him a while to get his head around the fact that winning age-group caps does not necessarily guarantee a successful career in the Premiership. He understands that now – he recognises how hard he has to work to make a go of it. As a result, he's added all sorts of things to his game and is making the right decisions far more often than he was. I reckon he'll make the England Saxons team this season."

Hill was dead right, not just about the Saxons – his 21-year-old protégé starts against an experienced Ireland A side in Bath tomorrow afternoon – but about all of it. "What Richard said was completely fair," Saull admits. "When I first started playing senior rugby at Saracens, I thought I could do the lot. I was always looking to throw the miracle pass or make the magic offload. I was guilty of trying too much, basically. What I've learnt, much of it through Richard's mentoring, is that rugby at Premiership level is less about doing one outstanding thing in a game and more about doing lots of little things that add up to a performance."

Saull is truly blessed in the tuition department. On the training field, he has another England back-row cap, Alex Sanderson, on his case, along with Paul Gustard, a much-travelled and long-serving Premiership operator who, in his workmanlike way, was every bit as effective as he was underrated. Away from the hurly-burly of match preparation, he spends his time learning the tricks of the open-side flanker's trade from Hill, who played Lions Test matches in the position.

"They've all been brilliant with me," he says. "Alex and Paul work me really hard while Richard sits there picking holes in my game. I've lost count of the times he's looked at me and said, 'Right, why did you do this?' or, 'You'd have been far better off not doing that'. He knows so much – all the fiddly bits, the short cuts, the crafty offside and the sneaky tug of the shirt." A shirt-tugger? The silently effective, understated Hill? Unimaginable, surely. "Richard was a master of the dark arts," Saull insists.

A part-time student from Essex – he is working towards a degree in financial economics – Saull was considered accomplished and strong-minded enough at 17 to play junior Six Nations and World Championship rugby, competitions designed for, and inhabited by, people a good couple of years older. He has the best part of 30 Premiership appearances behind him, made his Saxons debut against Portugal a year ago and was recently described by Venter as "a giant stake in the ground, helping to underpin Saracens' future".

But if the good things have come to him early, so have the bad. He already knows what it is to write off virtually an entire season because of a broken leg and has experienced the kind of upheaval that affects a Premiership club once in a blue moon. This time last year, Saracens appeared to be having another of their basket-case moments. Eddie Jones, the former Wallaby coach, abruptly announced his departure, only a few months after taking the reins. Then came the announcement that Venter would be succeeding him, with Edward Griffiths joining as chief executive, followed by a highly publicised cull of the existing squad.

"I wouldn't have called it a good thing at the time," Saull admits. "People were in a situation where they felt they were losing good friends while feeling unsure about the future, which is not a great mix. But when we started hearing about the plans for some exciting signings and it became clear that the new hierarchy were seriously ambitious about taking the club to a whole new level, the feeling changed. It's a fantastic place to be right now.

"Brendan has this image of stern intensity and it's true that he sees anything less than 100 per cent commitment as completely useless, but he's brilliant with the players – always open to ideas, always prepared to discuss and debate. As for the players, we're all friends and all equals. There's no pecking order, no one saying, 'I'll tell you what to do and you'll do it'. People want to join us: just this week, we've had announcements about Matt Stevens and Soane Tonga'uiha coming our way, which is awesome. Add that to the idea of playing more games at Wembley to build our supporter base and it's fair to say we're a go-ahead club."

It is a persuasive argument, but Saracens, long-time leaders of this season's Premiership until defeats by London Irish and Leicester rocked them back on their heels, are criticised by those who believe them to be overly reliant on South African imports. "I don't see that as a bad thing. South Africans are incredibly passionate about their rugby."

If South Africa are champions of the world, there is no doubting that in purely European terms, this is Ireland's time. Six Nations champions in the Grand Slam style last season, unbeaten in 2009 and revelling in the success of their leading provincial sides, they will again be the people to beat this year. Tomorrow's tangle with Ireland A at the Recreation Ground promises to be troublesome in the extreme, for the Saxons in general and Saull in particular. The Irish have picked three flankers in their back row, all boasting considerable know-how in the breakaway role.

"This will be the highest standard of rugby I've experienced," he acknowledges. "I expect it to be the quickest, toughest match of my career. Back in the summer, Ireland A put almost 50 points past the Saxons in the final of the Churchill Cup – a result that surprised everyone. That game has been spoken of a lot this week and the conclusion we've drawn is that the Irish were more physical than us. It's not the sort of thing you want to hear so it's up to us to put it right."