Premiership final: How Saracens went from 'absolute rubbish' to 'phenomenal'

Andy and Owen Farrell
Owen Farrell (right) made his debut for Saracens at the age of 17, while dad Andy was still playing

Owen Farrell arrived at Saracens as a 14-year-old chip off the old rugby block. He had followed his father Andy - a superstar cross-code recruit - to a club starved of silverware.

It was the 2005-06 season and Sarries, big names and all, finished third from bottom in the Premiership.

Now, 14 years later, England co-captain Farrell is the embodiment of how Saracens have built unparalleled success on homegrown talent over the past decade.

The club that started May by collecting a third European Champions Cup trophy are looking to win their fifth Premiership title in nine years when they face Exeter at Twickenham on Saturday.

Farrell, Jamie George, Jackson Wray and George Kruis, all Saracens academy players in 2008, have played a part in each of those seven triumphs.

"It is a good group that has constantly egged each other on to get better," Farrell, 27, told BBC Sport.

"No one year is ever the same here and that is the brilliant thing about it; our culture is forever evolving because we are constantly growing."

'Bonkers' success

Will Fraser was among that glory-harvesting 'class of 08' until injury forced him into retirement in 2017 aged just 27. He says the quartet have achieved "remarkable" things together before any of them have turned 30.

"Looking back, it's absolutely bonkers," Fraser told BBC Sport. "But at the same time, it's completely unsurprising.

"It is bonkers because of where they have come from and unsurprising because all of those guys are absolutely everything good about the club.

Jackson Wray of Saracens and Will Fraser of Saracens celebrate their 'double' success with the European Cup and Premiership trophies
Jackson Wray (left) and Will Fraser with their hands on the double in 2016, when Saracens won both the European Champions Cup and Premiership title

"Faz [Farrell] - with his mentality, his drive, his loyalty - you will never meet a more honest, humble, hard working or disciplined man in your life. They are literally the four club values.

"He is everything that is 'the Saracens way' in the same way that Jamie George, George Kruis and Jackson Wray also are."

These are just four players defined by those three words - 'the Saracens way' - by which the club lives.

A total of 43 'homegrown' players have featured for Saracens in the Premiership since 2008.

Some were cast in a Saracens mould as a teenager, the way north London's own Maro Itoje was. Some were polished to a black and red sheen as young professionals such as Mako Vunipola who arrived from Bristol as an under-20 England international in 2011.

While not all established themselves as regulars, 11 have gone on to play for England and four - including Farrell, Kruis and George - have earned British and Irish Lions caps in that time.

Saracens lifted the European Champions Cup in 2016, 2017 and 2019

From 'absolute rubbish' to 'phenomenal'

They are brought up through 'the Saracens way', which covers things such as 'culture' and 'care' to 'principles' and 'pillars' and has everything to do with one of the greatest transformations seen in English rugby union.

"Take away the rugby and essentially 'the Saracens way' is a programme which looks at how we have gone from being one of the lowest performing organisations in our industry to being one of the top performing in our industry, by focusing on people," added Fraser.

"Ten years ago, when we were quite frankly an absolute rubbish rugby club, we could afford to focus almost exclusively on the cultural aspect, and now 10 years on we are a phenomenal rugby club who are expected, externally and internally, to be fighting for silverware every year."

But to make it happen required upheaval. At Saracens, they know it as 'the revolution'.

For the youngsters of 2008 who have gone on to thrive, they first had to survive. More than a dozen players were culled before the 2009-10 season - the highest profile of which was former New Zealand international Chris Jack.

At the time it was dressed up as dealing with "economic realities" of the time, but for head coach Brendan Venter it was a necessary purge to usher in a new age.

'Black Monday'

Fraser remained, receiving the good news while playing on loan in South Africa, while Farrell also lived through it, although he only recalls being at school that particular day.

Just months later Alex Goode, an academy graduate and recently named European player of the season, was signed to a long-term contract - a deal likened to driving a "giant stake in the ground" to underpin the club's future.

Saracens academy coach Adam Powell
Adam Powell returned to coach at Saracens academy in 2017 after retiring as a player with Newcastle

Former Saracens centre Adam Powell, who rose through club ranks having first joined as a 13-year-old, now works as academy coach and says the all-conquering side of today can be traced back to the "Black Monday" in February 2009 of that squad cull.

"A strong culture breeds success," said Powell.

"We didn't have an identity back then, no. We weren't the worst example in the world, we got to Premiership and European semi-finals, but blew hot and cold.

"It was a weird experience but when you are young and don't have anything to worry about it's not actually that bad.

"We weren't doing too well so I was going to buy into whatever was coming next. For me personally it was good and for the club, as it has shown over the past 10 years, it was a big day for us.

"We are now reaping the benefits of an a very ingrained culture.

"The reason we are now consistent in terms of developing players and putting together performances is because we know fundamentally what we are about.

"The guys that are coaching in the academy, be it the 14s or 18s or whoever, they all have an idea of what a Saracens player should be like."

An "academy first" approach to recruitment means chances are given by Sarries director of rugby Mark McCall, but this is not a one-stop-shop player factory, as star names are still lured to London.

Wales winger Liam Williams is "a world-class" example, with England and British and Irish Lions back Elliot Daly moving to the capital from Wasps next season.

"It is down to Mark McCall at the top; he has a belief in bringing these lads through and wants to give them opportunities and the benefit of doubt," said Powell.

"Without him or someone at the top with that mentality, it can grind to a halt."

The future is now

Nick Tompkins
Nick Tompkins came off the bench to run in three second-half tries against Gloucester in the semi-final

The rise of some has been more seamless than others.

Nick Tompkins, a junior England international schooled by Sarries from a young age, marked his 100th first-team appearance for the club with a semi-final hat-trick against Gloucester on Saturday after replacing injured captain Brad Barritt.

A week earlier, scrum-half Tom Whiteley, a player released by Harlequins for being too small, contributed 19 points in a narrow 31-29 defeat for a largely second-string Saracens team against Worcester in their final regular league fixture.

This season, 22-year-old Whiteley has done it all, from filling in as waterboy when they won the pre-season Sevens tournament to making his first Premiership start and lifting the Premiership Shield.

"I knew coming to Saracens was my last chance, I had universities lined up and was thinking of playing Sunday league football. That was five years ago," Whiteley said.

"Before I got here, I never knew what Sarries were about.

"It is unbelievably welcoming. The academy is not treated as being separate - it is a family within a family.

"I've learned more out there on the training pitch than I have on any rugby field purely because I've been training with the best team in Europe for five years."

In a season in which 27 'homegrown' players have featured for Saracens' first team as they have gone the distance both domestically and in Europe, the club's trust in those that have passed through the academy is clear.

"We are all part of this," said Farrell.

"The only way you play well at the weekend is if you prepare well, and preparing well can be a lot down to the people who are not playing.

"All the lads know they are a big part of whether we win or not at the weekend. It makes us all feel as one rather than two separate teams - the academy are not just about the future, they are about the now."

Tom Whiteley in action for Saracens
Tom Whiteley is one of three academy players, including Rotimi Segun and Manu Vunipola, to make their first Premiership starts this season

Top Stories