Saracens' mark of Zondagh

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The Independent Online

When the first England squad of the season is named on Tuesday, two months in advance of the internationals against Australia, Argentina and South Africa, there could be as many as seven players from Saracens included. Things have changed since Jason Leonard, Dean Ryan and the like felt that in order to move up, they had to move on.

When the first England squad of the season is named on Tuesday, two months in advance of the internationals against Australia, Argentina and South Africa, there could be as many as seven players from Saracens included. Things have changed since Jason Leonard, Dean Ryan and the like felt that in order to move up, they had to move on.

Three of Saracens' possibles - Richard Hill, David Flatman and Ben Johnston - are largely home-grown, or should that be grown large at home. Johnston - all 6ft 3in and 15st 3lb of him - who is knocking hard on the door of a first cap at outside- centre, was in the Saracens youth side 18 months ago. Others such as Kyran Bracken, Dan Luger, Danny Grewcock and Julian White have been bought in. It is not entirely fantastic that all seven could end up taking on the Springboks. Ironic, that, because their guiding lights at Saracens are two South Africans.

One of these you may be familiar with; the other less so. François Pienaar has been re-styled as Saracens' chief executive but still helps with the coaching. In overall charge is Alan Zondagh, a Cape Town rugby man of vast experience yet, by his own admission, little known even to Sarries' devotees. "I'm past the stage when I seek the limelight," he says.

Yet if Saracens, seeking their fifth Premiership win out of seven against Rotherham this afternoon, can add on-field success to their gold medals for marketing, it might be Zondagh who is ushered on to the rostrum.

Steeped in the South African game, he got his first job in coaching as a 25-year-old, 20 years ago, at Western Prov-ince. He had been well prepared for the challenge, for both his academic and rugby studies at Stellenbosch University were in the charge of the great Dr Danie Craven.

"My late mother warned me to try harder to get my degree," Zondagh recalls. "I told her I would work in rugby one day, and that was when it was strictly amateur. I'm glad she lived to see me do it - and tell that story to everyone we ever met."

Zondagh cut his coaching teeth, on Craven's recommendation, during his national service, organising 18 teams every Saturday while still playing himself. Then Western Prov-ince took him on, and he travelled the rugby world, watching and learning. "It struck me that while we were fiercely competitive during the matches, no one was coaching professionally, not in sports science, or in running academies. I could see that rugby would eventually go that way."

Zondagh left Western Province after eight years for the relative backwater of Port Elizabeth, multi-tasking in the marketing department at Boet Erasmus stadium while coaching Eastern Province for three years, and securing the first trophy in their 103-year history.

There were other stints variously managing public affairs for a truck-engine manufacturer, working for a sports promotions company, and dabbling in corporate finance. But Zondagh was soon back on the Western Province payroll, during an exciting period when he was responsible for nurturing a glut of future Springbok stars in Percy Montgomery, Bobby Skinstad, Corne Krige, Robbie Fleck, Cobus Visagie, Breyton Paulse and Selborne Boome.

Then to England, and a radical change of scene at London Scottish. Zondagh remembers it as "survival rugby". But it worked well enough just after Christmas 1998, when Scottish scored one of that season's shock results, a 24-7 win away to, guess who, Saracens. Perhaps it left an impression, because Zondagh joined Sarries the following summer.

Saracens' owner, Nigel Wray, has only one trophy - the Tetley's Bitter Cup in 1998 - to show for almost five years at the club. Zondagh sees two sides of that story. "I think the important things are for the club to become stronger, the team to be stronger, the players to improve, and more of them to be playing for their country. It's not just a case of 'Did they win a cup?'

"At the same time, I'm aware that Nigel has put in a hell of a lot of money and effort. He has put Saracens on the world stage. So maybe it's payback time. Maybe it is time that we won some silverware."

In pursuit of glory, Saracens and one or two other thrusting clubs have occasionally given the impression that they would be quite happy if England selectors toddled off and poked their nose in somewhere else. Not with Zondagh around, though. "Your country is everything," he says. "I do this job for the players; without them we are nothing. And players want to play for their country."

Zondagh is supportive of the initiatives taken by Clive Woodward and the national hierarchy to foster better relations with the clubs. Andy Robinson, the England coach, has been allocated Saracens, along with Northampton and London Irish, as his special responsibility in a dividing-up of the 12 members of thePremiership.

"Both Andy and his scrummaging coach Phil Keith-Roach have been here," says Zondagh. "They want to see what we are doing in training, and they have been videotaping some games. It's no use me saying, 'I don't want anything to do with Clive Woodward'. The game's bigger than that. If Julian White wants to know why he's not in the England side, I need to know too. The only way I'm going to do that is by communicating. It's a very good system."

Of the rapidly-rising Johnston, he adds: "It's a big step up and he's got a lot to learn. But he wants to be in that team and anybody who gets in his way is going to be in trouble."

For now, Zondagh is happy to let the players - and Pienaar - occupy centre stage. "François and I work very well together, but I'm a different personality to him. I'm not the shouting, ranting type. Sometimes I think that counts against me. But when Dr Craven started me off at Stellenbosch, he said, 'Just be yourself'. It was good advice."

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