New dawn for Saracens

By Adam JonesBBC Sport at Twickenham
Saracens celebrate Premiership victory
Saturday's final whistle sparked scenes of wild celebrations in Saracens' squad

As the clock ticked down to zero and the 2011 Premiership final slipped into extra time, there were those in the Saracens ranks that feared history was about to repeat itself.

Leicester, through their relentless battering of the thin red-and-black line, looked poised to nick it again at the death. That elusive first Premiership title appeared to be slipping through Saracens' fingers, just as it had 12 months previously.

"I can't lie," said Jacques Burger, the Sarries open-side flanker with the demonic defensive demeanour.

"It did go through my mind. We just said 'keep them out, keep them out'. It would have been heartbreaking to have lost it at that stage."

But the doubters in the ranks had nothing to fear. In that white-hot cauldron, in the face of 32 lung-busting Leicester phases, Sarries forged their future and created history of their own.

"In a sick sort of way maybe it was fitting it ended that way," said director of rugby Mark McCall.

"It tells you a lot about Leicester as a club, the way they never give up and don't lose easily. But it also says a lot about our character, our spirit, how we fought for each other, that we refused to yield during that period. I wish it hadn't been like that, but I am chuffed to bits and so proud."

Richard Hill, World Cup winner and loyal Saracens servant of 15 years, spoke on the morning of the game about his club's emphasis on creating shared memories, of a sense of unity and of the oft-quoted 'Saracens family'.

It is an ethos that has seen the squad heading off for well-publicised bonding trips to the Oktoberfest beer festival in Germany and to Miami, where they trained with the NFL's Dolphins.

Their innovation, professionalism, attention to detail and evident collective strength is impressive to behold.

While this year's final was far from vintage, and there were errors aplenty on both sides, what was abundantly clear was that Saracens have, after years of under-achievement, finally delivered on their promise.

Nigel Wray
Sarries owner Nigel Wray took over the club in November 1995

Their victory marks the realisation of a 16-year dream for owner and chairman Nigel Wray, who has underwritten the north London club since the infancy of professionalism.

The multi-millionaire businessman has seen luminaries such as Francois Pienaar, Phillipe Sella, Michael Lynagh, Tim Horan, Chris Jack and Thomas Castaignede - to name but a handful - pass through his doors with just a solitary Tetley's Bitter Cup win in 1998 to show for it.

It was fitting then that in the ecstatic aftermath of victory, Wray's contribution received due credit.

"For people like Nigel Wray, who has poured his heart and soul into the club, this has been a momentous day," said McCall.

The Northern Irishman was also happy to pin-point his predecessor, Brendan Venter, as the instigator of the blueprint on which their achievement was based.

His appointment as director of rugby at the start of last season, after serving as a consultant under Eddie Jones, proved a revelation.

His signing of South Africans Schalk Brits and Ernst Joubert, and Namibian flanker Burger, proved inspired.

Venter ushered in the new collective spirit, a higher sense of professionalism and it paid dividends - taking the Men in Black to the top of the table at Christmas 2009 and on to their first final last term.

His departure from the club - he returned home to South Africa for family reasons - in November barely registered in Sarries' performances as McCall - previously head coach - stepped up into the top job with ease.

"Brendan began the project, he kick-started this club and his finger-prints are all over this team," McCall said. "Stepping into his shoes was actually a very easy thing to do because of the systems, and people, and values already installed at the club."

But that is all in the past. In the warm glow of a landmark victory, a new dawn was on Sarries' minds.

"We want to be here every year and do what Leicester have done as a club," McCall beamed.

Considering the Tigers have been the most successful English club of the professional era - they have won nine league titles, as well as two Heineken Cups - that is some statement of intent.

But the sense of belief was certainly evident among his charges, not least in the teenage ice-man Owen Farrell.

The 19-year-old fly-half announced himself on the big stage with the tactical nous of a seasoned veteran, showing nerves of steel to land six kicks out of six, and make a series of stinging tackles in repelling that final Tigers onslaught.

Owen Farrell
Farrell is in England's Under-20 squad for the Junior World Championships

His unbridled joy was clear for all to see when referee Wayne Barnes finally brought proceedings to an end.

"It was an unbelievable feeling when that whistle went," said Farrell junior, whose father Andy - a former rugby league Man of Steel - is now Sarries' head coach and mentor. "I've watched my Dad lift trophies since I was little, so to be part of that now is unbelievable.

"We did it for each other. That is what we are about as a team and a club. That is our culture. We are all about each other. Hopefully this is just a taster and there are many more [trophies] to come."

After one of the most impressive breakthrough seasons by a young stand-off in recent memory, it seems improbable now to recall that Farrell only got his chance through a combination of Glen Jackson's retirement, Derick Hougaard's season-wrecking injury and Alex Goode's failure to make a wholly successful switch from full-back, where he is more at home.

Next season Farrell will face competition from the arrival of Charlie Hodgson, and a fit-again Hougaard, but Saturday's performance will certainly have put him on Martin Johnson's radar after Toby Flood lived in his shadow for most of the afternoon.

That rivalry at number 10 illustrates the strength of a Saracens squad that looks well placed to build on this success.

The World Cup will be a factor in the early months of next season but compared to their semi-final contemporaries Tigers, Northampton and Gloucester, Sarries have benefited from a unity largely untroubled by international call-ups this year.

Burger, as captain of Namibia, will be missed but Sarries proved they could cope without him while he was injured this season and have a ready-made open-side replacement in Andy Saull.

Kelly Brown will travel with Scotland, while Matt Stevens, Brad Barritt, Alex Goode and David Strettle are all good outside bets - but far from certainties - to be on England's plane to New Zealand.

If the South African selectors continue to defy all logic and ignore Brits, Sarries fans will be delighted.

Winning is a habit, and habits are hard to break as Sarries proved with a 12th straight Premiership win to land their maiden title.

Their brutally efficient style, built on thunderous defence, has its detractors - they were labelled "horribly boring but very clinical" by Gloucester centre Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu after his side's semi-final defeat.

But on Saturday they were more reminiscent of the Sarries side that lit up the final few months of last season with some scintillating running rugby.

They also showed they can adapt their game, a quick line-out in Leicester's half leading to the only try of the game for James Short.

As Burger surmised: "You do whatever you have to do to win cups, and we won a cup today."

That Saracens have now cleared that hurdle is ominous for the rest of the Premiership, Leicester included.

"I think they are only going to get stronger and stronger, which is daunting for the rest of us," said Harlequins' England number eight Nick Easter, who witnessed events at Twickenham on Saturday.

As Saracens lifted the Premiership trophy, it became clear the sun was not just shining on a fine summer evening, but illuminating a new English rugby dawn.