When Saracens played their first European Cup final, against Toulon in 2014, it was a meeting of two clubs who had approached the venue in Cardiff from opposite directions. The French club, owned by the impatient Mourad Boudjellal, aimed to buy success, recruiting players, many of them World Cup winners, from around the world; the Premiership side, encumbered by a less generous salary cap, looked to build something lasting.
Toulon’s approach yielded three consecutive European Cups and a Top 14 title but five years on only two of the players involved in the 23-6 victory are still with the club. In contrast 11 of the Saracens 23 that day remain on the payroll and all of those except Marcelo Bosch were involved in last weekend’s victory over Leinster in Newcastle that made Saracens the first English club to win the Champions Cup for a third time.
Toulon will be in the Challenge Cup next season, a legacy of their short‑term approach, while Saracens, whose squad against Leinster included 11 players who had come through the club’s academy, have since the last World Cup matured into the leading club in Europe. The majority of their most valuable assets have been homegrown.
It took Saracens a long time to reach the top in Europe. Well beaten at home in a 2012 quarter-final by Clermont, they lost a semi-final to Toulon the following year. Progress was steady but the experience of failure was turned to advantage: nine of the players involved against Clermont took part against Leinster, seven of them starting the match, and the director of rugby, Mark McCall, also remains. They lost their first European quarter-final, semi-final and final this decade, but each time won the next one.
“It is about more than the rugby at Saracens,” says the Bristol coach, Pat Lam, whose club are taking a similar approach by adding a sprinkling of high-profile signings to supplement players who have come through the system. “It is about the community and there is alignment between Nigel Wray [Saracens’ chairman] and Mark. They have been clear in their vision and what they have achieved is outstanding.
“I sent Mark a message after the victory over Leinster saying Saracens were great ambassadors for the Premiership and the game in England. So much work goes on behind the scenes to deliver a title: it is a process, one that is based on outcome. If you have absolute belief in what you are trying to do and where you are going, and you are steadfast, you will get there. They are what a rugby club should be.”
Wray has been involved with Saracens since the amateur drawbridge was lowered in 1995. It has cost him about £40m as he makes good losses every year and his approach has changed: at the start big names were recruited – Thomas Castaignède, Michael Lynagh, Philippe Sella, Francois Pienaar and Abdelatif Benazzi among them – but the investment yielded success only in the Tetley Bitter Cup. Too many close seasons were spent starting over.
Photograph: Matthew Impey/REX/Shutterstock
There were two catalysts for change: the arrival of Brendan Venter as the director of rugby in 2009, together with his assistant, McCall; and the move from Vicarage Road to Allianz Park in 2013.
The club last year established a charitable arm, Saracens Sports Foundation, with the aim of changing lives through the power of sport in north London and Hertfordshire, focusing on those who have been marginalised.
The former Saracens flanker Will Fraser, who retired through injury in 2017, is the director of the Saracens Way, an initiative aimed at businesses with bespoke programmes based on the club’s core values. “By undertaking one of our programmes you will gain a unique insight into how Saracens have gone from a chronically under-achieving organisation to double [now triple] European and four-time Premiership champions,” it says in the prospectus. “You will have the opportunity to understand how a cultural change, a strong set of values and an emphasis on happiness and making memories have propelled Saracens to one of the top sides in world club rugby.”
The aim is sustained success. “I don’t think you are ever satisfied, because that means putting in a full stop,” Wray says. “Triumph is short‑lived. Beating Leinster was fantastic but it is about where we go from here. How do we get better? How do we keep caring? We have created an environment where people work hard and know they’re going to be looked after. When times get tough that’s when it really shows.”
It was tough against Leinster after 32 minutes. Saracens had lost two props to injury, including Mako Vunipola, who will miss the rest of the season with a torn hamstring, plus Maro Itoje to the sin-bin. After they conceded a try to go 10 points down Owen Farrell gathered the players under the posts.
“He took control of everyone,” says the hooker, Jamie George. “He said we had two choices: feel sorry for ourselves and roll over or roll up our sleeves and get on with it. We are a really close group. Many of us have grown up together and when the final whistle went it was the best feeling I have had on a rugby field. We had to really battle.”
Attention now turns to the Premiership and play-off against Gloucester at Allianz Park. Saracens missed out on the double in 2017, partying hard and losing at Exeter in the semi-finals after beating Clermont, but they have an extra week this year and will take some stopping.
“What Saracens get is that rugby is not just about one thing,” says Dean Ryan, the Rugby Football Union’s head of international development, who takes over as the Dragons director of rugby in July and who started his playing career at Saracens. “There has to be a narrative about what you are trying to do. It makes Saracens very powerful and able to overcome a team like Leinster that has full international backing and can manage its players over the year. Europe is a real challenge for English clubs. Saracens have mastered it.”
Continuity the key
Only one Toulon player from the 2014 Champions Cup final XV at Cardiff – Mathieu Bastareaud – remains at the club. In contrast 11 Saracens from that day’s starting lineup are still full-time players at Allianz Park:
Alex Goode Still at Saracens
Chris Ashton Sale
Marcelo Bosch Saracens
Brad Barritt Saracens’ captain
David Strettle Saracens
Owen Farrell Saracens
Richard Wigglesworth Saracens
Mako Vunipola Saracens
Schalk Brits Retired
Matt Stevens Sharks (Durban)
Steve Borthwick Retired
Alistair Hargreaves Retired
Jacques Burger Retired
Billy Vunipola Saracens