Sorrell needs to be the hardest man for Saracens to take wing in the top flight

Click to follow
The Independent Online

"I want to be playing Tou-louse here in the European Cup under floodlights," said Wray, who had just put up a couple of million quid to buy the club. We scribbled it down and waited politely until he had walked out before laughing.

As it turned out, the funniest thing was not that Wray did indeed live his dream - albeit at Watford rather than on the park pitch at Bramley Road - but that it died so quickly. After two seasons hobnobbing it in the Heineken Cup between 1999 and 2001, during which they beat Toulouse home and away, Saracens have pottered around in the lesser European Shield and Challenge Cup, undermined by a worsening Premiership performance. Poor Nigel.

Actually, that's not much of an epithet for a man with a fortune estimated at more than £100 million in the UK, not to mention what may lie overseas. And in any case, today Wray's club are back in the Heineken, and with a home tie against French visitors in Biarritz to boot. Perhaps Kevin Sorrell - who as an 18-year-old tiro dutifully stuck up his hand at the special general meeting on 6 November 1995 which voted Wray in - can phrase it better.

"To begin with it was taken for granted we would be in the top competition every year," said Sorrell, the centre whose club joint-record of 12 Heineken Cup appearances is illustrative of Sarries' brief stay in the élite. "Then you find yourself standing in the airport going to Bucharest for a Shield match, and in the grand scheme of things it's a pretty pointless game. You get home and watch Leicester and Munster and Toulouse on TV, and they're the games you want to be playing."

Sorrell was taking his A-levels in the summer of 1995 when he watched Francois Pienaar on TV lifting the World Cup in South Africa. The following year he was training with Pienaar "and pinching myself a bit". Saracens have been synonymous with star names, and the received wisdom that their downfall has been a high turnover of players is not disputed by Sorrell.

"Look at the clubs that have been successful recently - Leic-ester and Wasps - and they've got continuity. Wasps have been together five or six years, and familiarity really does help: when you know how people are going to be thinking, how they're going to run, what decisions they're going to make. That's something [Saracens' director of rugby] Steve Diamond is trying to achieve for us now. It would be stupid not to look at what others are doing."

The statistics speak for themselves. Sorrell has played for England A and stayed the course with his solid defence and eye for the gap, lacking perhaps only a shot of extra pace. But Saracens have seen an incredible 23 international backs come and go around him. Wray bought Philippe Sella, Michael Lynagh and Tim Horan both for their ability on the field - "Timmy was definitely a class act," said Sorrell - and to help build a brand.

But what of Alain Penaud, Dan Luger, Andy Goode, Jannie de Beer and the rest, not to mention a similarly long list of quality forwards? Some were unfit and should never have been signed. Others should have been persuaded to stay longer.

The change in coaches from Mark Evans to Pienaar to Buck Shelford to Rod Kafer and now Diamond and Mike Ford did not help. Andy Farrell, sidelined until December after his switch from rugby league, is the latest calamity. "There have been some extremely low points in the last five years," said Sorrell.

In Saracens' first Heineken season they missed taking Munster's proud home record in Limerick by a point when Ronan O'Gara converted a late try from the touchline. In October 2000 Saracens took a bespoke line-up of nine Englishmen plus half-a-dozen quality imports including the newly signed Thomas Castaignède to Toulouse in the opening pool match and won 32-22. "Then we lost to Cardiff home and away," said Sorrell, "and that knocked the stuffing out of us."

Sella was interviewed for the Biarritz website this week and warned of the ability of Sorrell and his fellow long-serving centre Ben Johnston to beat an opponent.

With two wins out of five in the Premiership, the search for consistency continues. "We've been attacking reasonably well but our defence has been sloppy," said Sorrell. "Biarritz are a formidable side."

Comments