When the referee, Mike Hudson, called time at the end of Coventry’s victory over Doncaster Knights at Castle Park on Saturday 14 March, none of us knew that 358 days would pass before the next competitive game was played in the Greene King IPA Championship. It’s been a long, and frustrating, wait for players and fans, but the new season finally kicks off this weekend with my own club, Saracens, joining the league for the first time.
English rugby’s second-tier clubs will be excited at the prospect of denting the ambition of the three-times European champions and welcoming Owen Farrell, Maro Itoje and Billy Vunipola to a parallel rugby universe. If there is one game Championship clubs will analyse, put in an extra training session for, then Saracens will be that “cup final” for all.
Let’s get one thing straight: the Championship is a very tough league. I should know, having played nearly three seasons with Bedford Blues. Championship teams play with intensity, commitment and tactical intelligence. Pre-season games against Ealing Trailfinders, Doncaster and Coventry have left our squad in absolutely no doubt of the challenge that awaits them. We are up against proud men, many with a huge amount of experience, all vying to show Saracens what they can do.
There is genuine ambition in this league. Ealing convincingly won the pre-season Trailfinders Challenge Cup. Run by their astute director of rugby, Ben Ward, and generously backed by Mike Gooley, the team are full of dynamism and tenacity. They are serious contenders for the league title and a side to be wary of.
Ealing will not be the only team to think the matchup against Saracens is their showpiece fixture. A first trip to Cornish Pirates for many in the Saracens squad will be one to relish. Penzance, with its own microclimate, will welcome us for our first league game of the season on Saturday. The Pirates are unquestionably one of the strongest teams in the league, particularly with their understanding of the contours of Mennaye Field and the mental battle that comes with it. I have always loved playing there in the fresh sea air, even though it can take an eternity to get there.
At Saracens we are all going to have to swap the familiar for the unfamiliar as we seek to bounce back into the Premiership. A voyage to the south-west will mean heading way beyond Exeter’s Sandy Park; our most northerly rivals will be Doncaster rather than Newcastle and a London derby will involve Richmond instead of Harlequins. New friendships will be forged and club ties strengthened. We will be better for it.
All the clubs are itching to get going. Most have faced grave financial challenges, relying on the furlough scheme to pay the wage bill and crowdfunding to cover their overheads, especially the cost of Covid testing. I take my hat off to all the supporters who have dipped into their pockets to help their local clubs, especially at Ampthill and Bedford. It shows just how important rugby is within local communities. Players know, and appreciate, what has been done. I am sure they will start to repay that debt on the pitch this weekend.
And what of the past nine months at Saracens? The Premiership’s restart in August felt like a breath of fresh air. Accepting our fate, we played as a group committed to giving everything for each other, particularly those legends whose time at the club was coming to an end. I loved getting into the thick of things, going from weekend to midweek games, the whole squad playing its part. With the European Cup as the focal point, it was extraordinary to be involved in a group that battled against the odds and just came up short in the semi-finals. Some familiar faces bade farewell, closing a remarkable chapter in English and European top-flight rugby.
We will show respect to our opponents and work hard to earn it from them
Since then, there have also been changes on the coaching side. Alex Sanderson has become director of rugby at Sale after 17 successful years with Saracens but Kelly Brown has just returned as an assistant coach. The ability to manage change is part and parcel of every successful club but the basic principles remain the same. Saracens is a club where everyone is encouraged to maximise their potential every day in training. It is that level of continuity that breeds confidence among the players and success on the pitch.
If there is one thing I have learned in my time at Saracens, it is that the whole organisation is built on togetherness, exactly the characteristic needed to navigate our way through an intense three months of Championship rugby. The whole squad is genuinely excited at the prospect of visiting some of the traditional strongholds of English club rugby, while being warm hosts to those who visit us.https://www.theguardian.com/email/form/plaintone/the-breakdownThe Breakdown: sign up and get our weekly rugby union email.
We will show respect to our opponents and work hard to earn it from them. Even without fans for most of the season, the level of competition will illustrate to supporters and the RFU just how important this league is. We have had to be patient for the opportunity but, finally, the waiting is over.
(Article as seen in The Guardian 04/03/21)