Saracens' outside bet proves winner

Hugh Godwin meets the 'other' Aussie newcomer stealing the show
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The Independent Online

Take the blackboard and chalk away from him and Einstein probably looked a mite forlorn, while Beethoven was just a curly-haired chap with an ear trumpet when deprived of the piano. So it has been with Tim Horan since his arrival at Saracens. The man voted best of the best at last year's World Cup has yet to see active service at his new club beyond pacing around in a tracksuit top, helping to coach the backs while nursing his injured ankle back to health.

Take the blackboard and chalk away from him and Einstein probably looked a mite forlorn, while Beethoven was just a curly-haired chap with an ear trumpet when deprived of the piano. So it has been with Tim Horan since his arrival at Saracens. The man voted best of the best at last year's World Cup has yet to see active service at his new club beyond pacing around in a tracksuit top, helping to coach the backs while nursing his injured ankle back to health.

It has been left to a less celebrated Australian to guide the on-field frolics in a run of five straight wins by Saracens that points to a season of unprecedented success. Duncan McRae, the Sydney-born former rugby league player, has been ever-present at outside-half since arriving in the summer. Last week he put an early howler in Toulouse behind him - "I went to boot the ball and nearly kicked myself in the face" - to help earn a fine victory that might have finished with a wider margin than 32-22. Today Ulster are the opposition at Watford in the second pool match of the Heineken Cup.

McRae grew up playing rugby union, but after representing Australian Schoolboys he went straight to league as a 17-year-old, encouraged by his father, who was and still is an official at the Souths club in Sydney. McRae junior, whose paternal grandparents hailed from Glasgow, began with Souths, then made his first visit to London for a season with the Broncos in Super League in 1996 before returning to another Sydney club, Canterbury Bulldogs. Not until mid-1998 did he do what was still unusual in Australian rugby circles, and switch codes, to the New South Wales Waratahs.

Opportunity soon knocked, in the shape of injury to the NSW full-back Matt Burke, which allowed McRae a run in the Waratahs' No 15 jersey throughout the 1999 Super-12. It led to a tour with Australia A to New Zealand, under the man he believes will become the Wallaby coach next year, Eddie Jones. McRae narrowly missed the cut for the World Cup-winning squad, and endured a frustrating time with NSW this year, with his favoured position of outside-half occupied by Christian Warner and the fit-again Burke restored at full-back.

"Most weeks I was playing club rugby for Randwick," says McRae - and it was a connection at the heart of a triangle of circumstances which show what a small world rugby is.

Bob Dwyer, then the director of rugby at Bristol, was trailing McRae earlier this year, offering a move to England. At the same time, Saracens' coach, Alan Zondagh, was on the look-out for an experienced No 10. "An agent in South Africa sent us some videotape of Duncan," says Zondagh. "I made some calls to Tiaan Strauss [the dual South African-Australian international playing for NSW] and he said Duncan had a lot of talent."

McRae sealed a one-year deal with Saracens just as Dwyer, himself a Randwick man, was signing on the dotted line for a return to New South Wales. "If I'd known, I might have stayed," admitted McRae. "I could have fought on for a Wallaby jersey. But I'm happy with the move now I'm here."

McRae, aged 25, and his girlfriend still find the London roads a little daunting, but in the congested fast lane of Premiership and European rugby he is proving a prize asset. "He kicks well, all thedifferent types, and he's an aggressive tackler," says Zondagh. "He knows what is going on in front of him, but the opposition never know what he's going to do. He gives our backs time to do things."

McRae, similar in stature to his compatriot and Saracens predecessor Michael Lynagh, sees his role in simple terms: "If the pack play to their ability every week we're going to be very hard to beat. With two international wings and guys like Ben Johnston and Thomas Castaignÿde around, it would be silly for me to be kicking the corners." Both he and Zondagh pay handsome tribute, too, to the hard-working inside-centre Kevin Sorrell.

And then there is Horan. "Just speaking to him about his 82 caps, it's mind-boggling," says McRae. "One would do me very fine." Who knows, a couple of injuries on the forthcoming Wallaby tour and he might get his wish.

As for Saracens, their status is such that they continue to be linked with every new name on the player market. Hence McRae's unprompted remark: "If they sign Josh Kronfeld I suppose I won't be around," in reference to the two-overseas-players rule. Zondagh, how- ever, sees it differently. "Tim Horan's locked in for two or three years," he says, "and we've got an option on Duncan for another year. It's time we used our own players coming through the system. I don't think we need to be looking abroad again."

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