Brad Barritt: ‘Saracens was a team that lacked identity – now players are proud to wear the jersey’
A small, puffy weal of skin just under Brad Barritt’s left eye is the only outward sign of the ironmongery and embroidery that have mended the face of the Saracens captain. A crack in his cheekbone last season needed a metal plate inserted, and Barritt played a European quarter-final away to Leinster a few days later.
Another fracture this season required another plate in the floor of the eye socket and a more complicated procedure of three sets of stitches, one on top of the other, knitting several layers of skin and muscle together. “I’m told it took about two hours,” says Barritt, who went under general anaesthetic and actually missed a match at Harlequins as a result.
Ho-hum, another set of rugby injuries, you might say. But behind Barritt’s battered face is the decade-long story of the evolution of Saracens from a knockabout bunch of winners one week, losers the next, to a team who are unbeaten in all competitions this season and have won their last 19 matches in the Premiership and Europe since April, with four league titles and two in the European Cup behind them.
‘It's only about Saracens'
Out of Durban in South Africa, via a family with English and Welsh connections, Barritt spent a week in England’s junior national academy at the age of 18 before he joined Saracens from Natal as a 22-year-old and made his debut in November 2008.
“There had been some really talented players who had come and gone, but I don’t think there was an overwhelming sense of pride in what it meant to wear the Saracens jersey,” Barritt says, as he reflects on his 10 years in the red and black. “It was a team that very much lacked an identity – a true belief in what a Saracen needs to be and what a Saracen should be.”
Much like the two facial injuries that came from an opponent’s elbow and knee respectively, you can look away and not think about the punishment professional rugby players take, or you can listen to Barritt and appreciate Saracens’ serious-minded approach to what has become a very tough sport to play.
“Brendan [Venter, the former head coach] and then Mark McCall instilled a culture in which every person feels valued,” Barritt says. “They recruit players who fit the mould. Regardless of guys going over to international recognition, or a Lions tour, or whatever it may be, the moment they step back into a Saracens frame of mind, it’s only about Saracens and it’s not about the individual.”
‘A very desirable place to come'
Under the former chief executive, Ed Griffiths – another key influencer, together with Nigel Wray, the chairman and co-owner since 1995 – there were press allegations, never prosecuted, of breaches of the salary cap. Saracens have certainly had the pick of talent such as Alex Goode and Maro Itoje from around north London, while buying in luminaries such as No.8 Billy Vunipola, and maybe getting lucky in that Andy Farrell – the man Barritt replaced on his debut – brought his son Owen with him.
“It’s not like a football scenario where you’ve got a Man City who’s spending ten times the amount of another club,” says Barritt. “Ultimately we have created an environment players want to be at. Maybe 10 years ago it was a difficult club to recruit for. With success and what the club put an emphasis on, it is a very desirable place to come.”
He speaks of “micro-skilling” areas such as the breakdown, which might bear fruit in today’s top-of-the-Premiership trip to Exeter, or six months down the line. Everyone knows the stories of team-bonding trips to Miami and Munich. This week Wray arranged a Christmas party this week with everyone’s children receiving a gift (Barritt’s three-year-old son, Leo, had fun tugging at Santa’s beard).
A cog in the machine
Barritt’s time with England, which included playing and scoring alongside Manu Tuilagi in the famous 2012 win over New Zealand at Twickenham, appears to have been and gone, despite the current head coach, Eddie Jones, being the man who signed him to Saracens in 2008.
It has left Barritt as Saracens’ stalwart inside centre, averaging more than 20 appearances a season. Simply put, he is the unflashy glue between the playmaking of Owen Farrell at fly-half, and the wondrous back-three talent including Goode, Sean Maitland of Scotland and Wales’s Liam Williams.
Every hard yard Barritt makes with the ball in hand, and every tackle he makes that disrupts the opposition attack, is integral to his team’s playing philosophy. As captain, too, he epitomises the club’s mantra of “keep pounding the rock”, introduced by forwards coach Alex Sanderson.
A learning process
“There’s always that dreaded word of ‘complacency’ and of standing still,” Barritt says. “I don’t think in the last few years I have ever woken up and said ‘oh no, I’ve got training today’. Which is quite a remarkable thing, because there are days when it’s grey and wet and cold.
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“If we achieve what we set out to achieve against Exeter [today], and we get the feeling we want to generate on the pitch, and we lose, we will move on and know that we are headed in the right direction. If we go to Exeter and win but don’t have the performance we want, we will strive to learn and get better. A lot can be made of the winning run.
“We learnt so much from the finals we lost, in the Premiership and Europe. For us, it’s about gauging the performance and having the net feeling we want to achieve, week in and week out. That’s never governed by the result.”
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