Saracens prepared to earn their spurs all over again
September 4, 2014
Saracens were left without silverware last term - there is a resolve for there never to be a repeat of that © Getty Images
There were mere seconds left on the clock in extra-time of the 2014 Aviva Premiership final when Northampton Saints prop Alex Waller burrowed under a host of desperate Saracens bodies to ground the ball on the line. It was the try that won Northampton their maiden Premiership. For Saracens it was the body blow that saw them lose two finals in seven days. They were desolate, but they did not have to wait long for inspiration, even if it came from an unlikely source.
Just 16 days after the Premiership final, the San Antonio Spurs defeated the Miami Heat in basketball's NBA Finals. It was a moment of redemption and revenge for the Spurs, who had been precisely 5.2 seconds away from being crowned NBA champions a year earlier only for the same Miami Heat to dramatically score a tying three-point shot before winning Game 6 in overtime. Miami would win that seven-game series in the decider in 2013, but the Spurs overwhelmed them 4-1 in this year's finals.
For Saracens coach Mark McCall, he watched the Premiership final back as soon as he could bring himself to do it. The pain needed to be experienced, bottled and used as a driving force. Then came the case of the Spurs. Their heartbreak the year previous became part of their tapestry. McCall wants a similar reaction from his side with the pain being used as motivation.
"It's very important that we talked about it as a group and we acknowledged the pain," he says. "Everyone felt the same emotion, some got over it the next day but for others it continued. For me, it's still there. That was part of our story, the Aviva Premiership final was not a one-off event, it's part of our story. If you see it as part of that context, then it gives you a chance to respond."
When Saturday ticks around, Saracens are looking to begin a new chapter. They face Wasps at the ground where they suffered their heartbreak four months previous. But there will be no brave faces, McCall wants steely resolve. There were positives from last season, plenty of them. At the start of the campaign McCall targeted the Premiership and Heineken Cup. Reaching both finals extends the season to 33 matches. Saracens achieved that.
That tally means they are clearly on the right lines when it comes to winning silverware. That they lost the finals means they still need the odd tweak here and there. McCall has answered that by bringing in Scotland lock Jim Hamilton, Argentina prop Juan Figallo and Australia front-row Kieran Longbottom. They also have a new captain Alastair Hargreaves who replaces the retired Steve Borthwick.
"There've been minimal changes with a couple retiring and a couple leaving," McCall said of their summer activity. "That's something we wanted to achieve when we began this five years ago. We wanted to have a consistency in the group we wanted to keep together and we have achieved that. Steve was a great leader but Alastair is intelligent, he understands the game well and speaks well. In the past five years we've grown leadership right throughout the group."
Added to those new recruits are the ever-maturing quintet of players who helped the England Under-20s to their Junior World Championship title - Maro Itoje, Nathan Earle, Nick Tomkins, Biyo Alo and Hayden Thompson-Stringer.
"There are some interesting ones," McCall said. "Maro Itoje is an incredible 19-year-old, it's like chatting to a 25-year-old. He's bright, he's intelligent, he's motivated and I think he'll take a bit of hauling back as I'm in no doubt he'll play some Premiership rugby this season. We have high hopes for Nick [Tompkins] and I think we'll see some of him in the Premiership. The same goes for Nathan Earle so we have some exciting talent."
Ray Allen nails 'The Shot' which halted the Spurs' title celebrations © Getty Images
Saracens will play the same brand of rugby this term as they did last season. It saw them score the most tries in the Premiership, collect the top number of try-scoring bonus points and top the league by nine points. "We did a lot of things right," is McCall's assessment. But statistics have only acted as consolation over the summer and not affirming their haul of silverware.
Central to the Spurs' inner-belief was the phrase coined by coach Gregg Popovich "pounding the rock". It originated from Danish-American social reformer Jacob Riis who fought hard for the rights of immigrants in New York during the early part of the 20th century. He once said: "When nothing seems to help, I go look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock, perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone before."
Speaking in 2011, Popovich reflected on the origins of his mantra. "The way he said it was very eloquent, and I thought that it fit. You get tired of all that other junk. 'Winners never do this' or 'Losers always quit.' 'There's no I in team' - all the typical, trite silly crap you see in locker rooms at all levels. It's always turned me off, so I thought that this was maybe a little bit more, I don't know, intelligent. A different way to get to the guys and make them think about it."
That mindset resonated with McCall. "The basketball team have talked about that every year for the last 16 years and while we haven't used that term, we've talked about something similar for the last five years, about expectation to front up day in, day out and week in, week out," McCall said. "And that's why we've had the consistency we've had; you never go through the motions at this club."
There will be no talk of "pounding the rock" within the confines of their base in St Albans this season; they want to write their own credo and finish the season like the Spurs. They want to be the inspiration come May, not the students.
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Tom Hamilton is the Associate Editor of ESPNscrum.