Taine Randell had the time of his life with the Barbarians last summer. "Far too much beer, very little training," he recalled this week, a warm glow spreading across his soft Maori features. "Would I like to do it again next year? Here's my phone number." Yet cynics might say there was a sting in the tail for the celebrated All Black flanker, that the good times came with a heavy price tag. During his stint with the Baa-Baas, a trio of big-hitters from Saracens persuaded him to try his luck at Vicarage Road for a season or two. And that is nobody's idea of fun.
Over the last eight years, Saracens have recruited more world-class players than Martin Johnson has had disciplinary hearings. If some were successful in the extreme - Michael Lynagh and Philippe Sella spring immediately to mind - others had all the impact of a flask of cold tea while costing Nigel Wray, that most generous of investors, the equivalent of a small vineyard in the Côte d'Or. The word "mercenary" springs to mind, especially with half a dozen heavy earners heading for the exit at the end of each campaign, only to pass another half-dozen on their way in.
None of this is lost on the latest recruit, of course. It is difficult to achieve what Randell has achieved - good degrees in law and commerce, 50-plus New Zealand caps and the All Black captaincy at the 1999 World Cup - without being attuned to the realities of life. "There is very definitely some pressure on me," he admitted following a sharp training run ahead of tomorrow's big Premiership meeting with Leicester. "I have to prove to a lot of people that Saracens made the right decision in bringing me here."
After a moment's thought, he warmed to his theme. "It is not news to anyone in England that big names have come to Saracens in the past and failed to deliver. And yes, I'd say this is pretty much a minefield, because history suggests the club will fail again. By and large, I've been fortunate to play in teams that had a core group of players who were effectively the heart and soul of the thing, but heart and soul was not overly apparent when I arrived a month or so ago. So what can I bring to the mix? Solidity, I hope, and a good deal of experience. A sense of direction and organisation, too, and not just on the field. The heart and soul thing has to go right through the club, and right through the working week."
This should be music to the ears around Watford way. The 28-year-old is self-evidently a player of the highest class - when he first visited Twickenham with the New Zealand Barbarians in 1997, he was nothing short of sensational - but at this stage of the Saracens experiment, something more than mere rugby brilliance is required. Saracens need honesty, professionalism, a sense of responsibility. In short, they need people who are prepared to get real. Randell is one of those people.
He had been toying with the idea of a spell in Europe for some time. "I'd studied at Otago University, and played my rugby in the same neighbourhood - for Otago in the National Provincial Championship, and for the Highlanders in Super 12. So basically, I hadn't found a way out of Dunedin. Most of my friends had played a little rugby and then travelled, enjoyed some good times in London and Paris and the States. I'd missed out on that. High-profile rugby in a place like New Zealand can get pretty suffocating, so I got around to thinking that as I'd probably done my dash as far as the All Blacks were concerned, I might do something else.
"But circumstances changed. I was asked to lead the 2002 All Blacks over here when some of the first-choice forwards stayed at home, and I enjoyed the experience. I also signed a domestic contract to play NPC and Super 12, and to captain the Maori team. One way or another, I'd more or less scrubbed the idea of moving to Europe. Then, during the Barbarians trip, I met Nigel, Mark Sinderberry [the go-get-'em Australian who took over as Saracens' chief executive last season] and Richard Hill [the England flanker and single most influential player at Sarries]. Suddenly, the idea of living and playing in and around London excited me again. I didn't know much about the club, but I checked out the website and decided to give it a go."
Randell certainly gave it a go last weekend, when Saracens travelled to Newcastle for their first Premiership outing and broke their duck at Kingston Park. Profoundly unimpressed by the six-hour coach trip up the M1 - "Never in a million years would a serious New Zealand team contemplate that the day before a game," he said with a mournful shake of the head - Randell was far happier with the way he and his fellow forwards finished the game. "We'd played well to go 20-3 up, and then - bump - it was 20-all. To have gutsed it out after getting worked by the Newcastle pack for half an hour...well, that's what I mean by heart and soul."
Interestingly, he suspects that the 2003 All Black captain, Reuben Thorne of Canterbury, and the rest of the New Zealand forwards will have to show similar application in adversity if they are to end an agony stretching back to the late 1980s and win themselves a second World Cup in Australia this autumn. Randell was every bit as surprised as the England hierarchy when Anton Oliver, the tough Otago hooker, was omitted from the travelling party, and feels a place should have been made available to another Dunedin-based hard nut, the lock forward Simon Maling.
"Anton knows his way around international rugby, and Simon is an out-and-out workhorse," he said. "New Zealand have the best back division, and if any team concedes turnovers against them, they'll be explosive. I like the loose forwards, too. Jerry Collins has made a difference at No 8 - he doesn't much care who he runs into, or over - and Richie McCaw is easily the best player in the All Blacks. But the tight five is pretty young. If a side places a heap of pressure on them - the kind of pressure England and France are well capable of applying - it could make life difficult.
"I think John Mitchell [the New Zealand coach] has picked on Super 12 form, and that seems to me to be a mistake. A good back-line goes a very long way in Super 12, but international rugby is different. At Test level, the first priority is to be solid up front, where the ugly stuff happens. If you took Johnson or one of those thundering great prop forwards out of the England pack, there would be a marked effect. I happen to think that in certain positions - not many, just one or two - the All Black selectors have gone light. And the consequences of that could be huge."
In common with every All Black who ever donned the silver fern, Randell is not a great one for long-term expectation. "I never saw this coming World Cup as a personal target, because that's not the way things work in New Zealand," he explained. "The only important game is the next one, because if you don't win it, you cop a whole load of shit." He must, however, harbour some sort of expectation for Mitchell's team, with the start of the tournament less than three weeks away. Does he see an end to his country's yearning? Will the vacuum be filled, at long last?
"I expect to see the All Blacks in the final," he said. And would that be the general expectation back home. "Oh no, not at all," he replied. "Back home, the people expect the All Blacks to win it."Reuse content