Wednesday, October 27

Saracens ready for the Championship and the Championship is ready for us | Will Hooley | Sport

WWhen referee Mike Hudson ended Coventry’s victory over Doncaster Knights at Castle Park on Saturday the 14thIn March, none of us knew it would be 358 days before Greene King’s next competitive IPA Championship match would be played. It has been a long and frustrating wait for players and fans, but the new season finally kicks off this weekend with my own club, Saracens, joining the league for the first time.

Second-tier English rugby clubs will be excited at the prospect of making a dent in the ambition of the three-time European champions and welcoming Owen Farrell, Maro Itoje and Billy Vunipola to a parallel rugby universe. If there is a match that the championship clubs will analyze, for which they will put in an additional training session, then the Saracens will be that “cup final” for everyone.

Let’s make one thing clear: the Championship is a very tough league. You should know, having played nearly three seasons with the Bedford Blues. Championship teams play with intensity, commitment, and tactical intelligence. The preseason games against Ealing Trailfinders, Doncaster and Coventry have left our team in no doubt about the challenge ahead. We are up against proud men, many of them highly experienced, all competing to show the Saracens what they can do.

There is genuine ambition in this league. Ealing convincingly won the preseason Trailfinders Challenge Cup. Led by their astute rugby manager, Ben Ward, and generously endorsed by Mike Gooley, the team is full of dynamism and tenacity. They are serious contenders for the league title and a team to be wary of.

The Cornish Pirates will face Yorkshire Carnegie at Mennaye Field in Penzance on January 12, 2020

The Cornish Pirates will face Yorkshire Carnegie at Mennaye Field in Penzance on January 12, 2020. Photo: Harry Trump / Getty Images

Ealing won’t be the only team to think that the Saracens showdown is their main figure. A first trip to the Cornish Pirates for many on the Saracens team will be one to enjoy. Penzance, with its own microclimate, will host us on Saturday for our first league game of the season. The Pirates are undoubtedly one of the strongest teams in the league, particularly for their understanding of the contours of Mennaye Field and the mental battle that goes with it. I’ve always loved playing there in the fresh sea air, although it can take forever to get there.

At Saracens we are all going to have to trade the familiar for the unknown as we seek to return to the Premiership. A trip to the Southwest will mean going far beyond Exeter’s Sandy Park; our rivals further north will be Doncaster instead of Newcastle and a London derby will involve Richmond instead of Harlequins. New friendships will be forged and club ties will be strengthened. We will be better for it.

All the clubs are eager to get going. Most have faced severe financial challenges, relying on the licensing scheme to pay salaries and crowdfunding to cover their overhead, especially the cost of Covid testing. Hats off to all the fans who have pocketed to help their local clubs, especially in Ampthill and Bedford. It shows how important rugby is within local communities. Players know and appreciate what has been done. I’m sure they will start to pay off that debt on the field this weekend.

And what about the last nine months in Saracens? The Premiership restart in August was like a breath of fresh air. Accepting our destiny, we played as a group committed to giving everything for each other, particularly for those legends whose time at the club was coming to an end. I loved getting into the thick of things, going from weekend games to midweek games, with the whole team doing their part. With the European Cup as the focal point, it was extraordinary to be involved in a group that fought against all odds and fell short in the semi-finals. Some familiar faces said their goodbyes, closing a notable chapter in top-notch English and European rugby.

Since then, there have also been changes on the coaching side. Alex Sanderson has become the rugby manager at Sale after 17 successful years with Saracens, but Kelly Brown has just returned as an assistant coach. The ability to manage change is an integral part of any successful club, but the basic principles remain the same. Saracens is a club where everyone is encouraged to maximize their potential in training every day. It’s that level of continuity that builds trust among players and success on the field.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my time at Saracens, it’s that the entire organization is built on togetherness, exactly the characteristic necessary to navigate our way through three intense months of championship rugby. The whole team is really excited at the prospect of visiting some of the traditional strongholds of English club rugby, while being warm hosts to those who visit us.

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We will show our opponents respect and work hard to earn it. Even without fans for most of the season, the level of competition will illustrate to fans and the RFU how important this league is. We have had to be patient for the opportunity but, finally, the wait is over.

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