Academy talent key to Saracens dynasty

Date published: January 24 2017

Saracens’ rise to the top of English and European rugby has been well-documented. 

After spending most of the 2000’s in mid-table obscurity, not to mention battling relegation in a couple of seasons, Saracens took a very proactive approach to improving their fortunes.

Part of this approach involved recruiting heavily from South Africa and between the years of 2008 and 2010, Brad Barritt, Mouritz Botha, Schalk Brits, Petrus du Plessis and Ernst Joubert all joined Neil de Kock in North London. Namibian Jacques Burger also made the move north and all seven players have since accrued over 100 appearances for the club, with De Kock even surpassing the monumental figure of 250 games in the black and red of Saracens.

There is no doubt that the signing of these experienced players helped propel Saracens up the Premiership table and played a key role in creating the culture that still strongly permeates the club to this day.

It was a process that drew significant criticism from those outside of the club, with Saracens labelled as an extra South African province and a team of mercenaries. Their improving fortunes drew ire, just as it does with any successful side in any sport, and they began to become victims – at least in a PR sense – of their own success.

However, whilst the investment in South African players was making the headlines and drawing all the attention, the investment in the club’s academy and the calibre of player it was producing went relatively unnoticed.

Alex Goode. Owen Farrell. George Kruis. Maro Itoje. Jamie George. Jackson Wray.

Not only had the club started to produce players capable of making an impact at the Premiership level, it was also now developing fully-fledged Test-calibre players. These players, along with Mako and Billy Vunipola, who although brought in from Bristol and Wasps respectively, owe much of their development to Saracens, have formed the new core of the North London side.

They have expelled the former claims – which were questionable at the best of times – of Saracens being a club that is built on the fleeting loyalties of mercenaries and a product of simply being able to spend more than their Premiership rivals.

It is with this core group of players in place that the club were finally able to end their European drought and lift the Champions Cup trophy last season, as well as maintain their recent dominance of the Premiership.

Such has been their success driving Saracens forward, they have now also taken centre stage in England’s revolution under Eddie Jones. Farrell, Itoje, Kruis, George and the Vunipola brothers are all automatic selections in an England 23 if fit and you would be hard-pressed to name too many players more influential in England’s unbeaten 2016.

This has, however, led to Saracens once again being a victim of their own success and leading them back to some old habits.

With the club’s English-qualified player (EQP) contingent so strongly taxed by Test call-ups, Saracens have struggled at times meeting the agreed EQP mark that the Rugby Football Union imposed as part of the club-country deal that was signed last year.

In Round 13 of the Premiership this season, they fielded just ten EQPs – in a match actually outside of the Test windows – and there have been multiple other matches where they have dipped to just 11, 12 or 13 EQPs in their matchday 23. At time of writing, that selection of ten EQPs is the joint-lowest in the Premiership this season and something which won’t be helped by the rises of Ben Spencer and Alex Lozowski and their inclusions in England’s latest Elite Player Squad.

There is no suggestion at all that the club isn’t pulling its weight in regards to helping the national team, with their players at the forefront of England’s current 14-match win streak, but it is a trend, or a return to old habits, which should have an eye kept on it as we head to towards the business end of the season and prepare for the 2017/18 campaign.

Spencer and Lozowski only look as if they will grow in importance to England and join their more established colleagues in regular Test action, whilst Nick Tompkins is flashing his ability this season and has a successful tour of South Africa with the England Saxons already in his portfolio.

It is something which puts the club’s upcoming offseason into sharp focus.

French hooker Christopher Tolofua has already been confirmed as arriving at Allianz Park, as has Welsh back three star Liam Williams. Tolofua’s arrival may see him push Brits down the pecking order – who will be 36 next season – and would therefore have no bearing on Saracens’ EQP numbers, but if Williams is viewed as a replacement for the Toulon-bound Chris Ashton, he will certainly further deplete the EQP pool.

There is also speculation that Du Plessis, who has long since qualified for England on residency, will move on from the club, leaving the tighthead jersey to be contested by Argentine Juan Figallo and South African Vincent Koch. Both players are capped by their nations and have no chance of becoming English-qualified.

The signing of Calum Clark from Northampton Saints will help arrest the slide, especially when Billy Vunipola is with England, but it is to the club’s academy that Saracens should be encouraged to look, especially after having profited so heavily from it in recent years.

Junior World Championship winners Henry Taylor, Joel Conlon and Nathan Earle are all ready to make an impact for the senior side and have shone at various levels this season, whether that be in the Saracens Storm XV for Taylor and Conlon or at Canterbury in the Mitre 10 Cup for Earle.

This is just scratching the surface.

Nick Isiekwe, a particularly talented lock, is about to embark on his England U20 career in the upcoming Six Nations, where he will join club teammates Max Malins, Alistair Crossdale, Jack Nay, Ralph Adams-Hale and Ben Earl, all of whom have impressive potential in their respective positions.

The club are also sitting on a trio of very talented wings, with Rotimi Segun, George Perkins and Matt Gallagher all contracted. Segun was an opportunistic and extremely fortuitous acquisition when his studies saw him leave his previous club, Northampton, whilst Gallagher has gained first team experience with Saracens this season and Perkins is a former schoolboy sprinter who has been making a name for himself in the Championship with Bedford Blues.

The Saracens coaching staff are no fools and will know when these players are ready for more senior action but some gentle encouragement now from the academy coaches will be far less painful than the financial implications of not meeting the EQP mark come the end of the season.

It is also worth noting that rugby players are well aware of the finite nature of their profession and with players winning international caps at younger and younger ages these days, the lure of playing time is a strong one. There are 11 other Premiership clubs with squads that need improving more or have less depth than Saracens, many of whom can offer a faster route to senior playing time.

The desire to represent the club and belief in the pathway is strong among those academy players but Saracens cannot afford to ignore them for too long or else they will be forced to look elsewhere.

That same faith in the pathway is not as deeply ingrained at a number of other clubs in the Premiership and to risk losing that is a gamble which Saracens cannot afford to take, especially after having devoted so much time, effort and money into their academy set-up.

Matching title ambitions, high-profile signings, EQP quotas and academy player development is a tough tight rope to walk and whilst Saracens have traversed it proficiently these last few years, they should not forget that the trust they had in home-grown talent is what delivered them their first ever European title.

It can deliver them more, if given the chance.

by Alex Shaw