Saracens offer blueprint for Euro success

2016-05-15 13:04
Rugby Ball (Getty Images)

Lyon - It might have been almost 10 years in the making, but club bankrollers in England and France will no doubt be looking to Saracens as the new blueprint for success on the continent.

While Mourad Boudjellal's Toulon stormed to the European Cup title three times in a row thanks in no small part to a star-studded team of seasoned internationals, Saracens have bucked that trend by forming a cohesive unit based on home-grown talent.

The finals weekend in Lyon was marked by talk of Racing 92's marquee signing Dan Carter and the victory of Montpellier, coached by Jake White and boasting seven South Africans and just three Frenchmen in the line-up, in the second-tier Challenge Cup.

The influx of foreigners is a hot topic, notably in France, where many pundits question the signing of journeymen from the southern hemisphere, something they argue works to the detriment of home-grown players.

On Saturday, England playmaker Owen Farrell booted seven penalties as Saracens battled to a convincing 21-9 win over Racing.

Carter's gamble on a calf injury failed, the All Black legend limping off after 43 minutes, influential half-back partner Maxime Machenaud having already been replaced for concussion.

"Congratulations Saracens - European Champions and 100% deserved!!!! Been building for a long time into an amazing team. Enjoy!!!" tweeted England great Jonny Wilkinson, who himself tasted European success with Toulon.

And it has indeed been a long time coming for Saracens, a club which just a few years back, were considered a kind of South African outpost in Europe, featuring several players from that country in a squad coached by Brendan Venter, the former Springbok centre.

After years of being bankrolled solely in the professional era by wealthy British businessman Nigel Wray, in 2008 South African billionaire Johann Rupert took a 50 percent stake in a Saracens side whose then chief executive, Edward Griffiths, had made his name helping organise the 1995 World Cup in South Africa.

Despite the heavy South African influence, hooker Schalk Brits insisted "the essence way back then was always to make it a feeding ground for English players to come through".

"Yes we want expats but they must help the Owens (Farrells) and Jamie Georges to come through. It's great to see what the academy has done," Brits, a 10-times capped Springbok, told AFP.

And Saracens coach Mark McCall was left beaming with pride when heaping praise on five English players from the 2008 academy who played the final 25 minutes of the Cup final. "It was pretty special for them," he said.

Indeed the Saracens' starting side for the showpiece match featured six members of the England squad that won this season's Six Nations with a Grand Slam -- Alex Goode, Owen Farrell, Billy and Mako Vunipola, George Kruis and Maro Itoje.

McCall claimed the presence of the likes of newly-crowned European player of the year Itoje, 21, and the other England stars, all still in their early or mid-20s, means the future is promising for the London club.

"It feels good right now because we have been pounding a rock in this competition for four or five years," he said, having overseen a 23-6 defeat by Toulon in the 2014 final.

"We truly believe that if we're humble and hungry enough, which I know that we are, there's more good days ahead of us."

Former British and Irish Lions coach Ian McGeechan said Saracens "were a collective; a team. They were not capable of that performance in the final two years ago against Toulon, when they were nearer the start of their development phase".

"I cannot see Saracens taking their foot off the gas now," McGeechan wrote in a column for the Daily Telegraph.

"They know how to win, they can do it playing attacking rugby with offloads or they can do it playing a kicking game with a strong kick chase.

"They will clearly be the team to beat but I don't think anyone will. As opposed to Racing, who are at the start of their cycle, Saracens are the result of a four or five year project, a brilliantly cohesive, collective unit."

Ex-Wales captain Eddie Butler, writing in the Observer, added: "Their success matches the Grand Slam of the England team in the Six Nations. England have returned to form across the board. With a sparkle during the winter and with icy resolution on a summer's day.

"Both styles confirm that a revolution is firmly under way. It comes a little later than anticipated - 13 years after England won the World Cup, but it is real and it is comprehensive.

"Saracens of England are on top of the continent, and just for once Carter could only sit and watch."

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