ALEX GOODE admits he didn’t have much luck in the casinos when he holidayed in Las Vegas this year, but Saracens’ gamble of taking club rugby to Wembley Stadium for the first time last season paid off as they managed to win all four matches in front of crowds of 40,000-plus.
Saracens will make what they hope is a happy return to Wembley on 16 October, when they entertain Leinster in the Heineken Cup, and Goode can’t wait. “Playing at Wembley for a young English kid is a dream come true,” says the England Saxons star. “Twickenham is my number one but Wembley comes close. It’s wonderful. They left no stone unturned when they built it – it’s a highly professional set-up. It’s a very special place and in the first 20 minutes the opposition chuck the kitchen sink at you because they’re so motivated too. But we’ve won there four times so it’s somewhere we like to play!”
Saracens beat Northampton, Worcester and Harlequins there, but the match which Goode says “will stick with me for the rest of my life” was their 24-23 defeat of South Africa in November. Not only was it an historic win, but Saracens fan Stuart Tinner wrote his own headlines when he won £250,000 during half-time by successfully hitting the crossbar with a punt kick. Goode laughs: “I hadn’t played the first half so I was more relaxed than a lot of the players and I was aware of what had happened and had a joke about it.
“It was quite a fairytale because we were losing at half-time and then the crowd went up a notch after the guy won the money. We started the second half well, scored and scored again and went on to win. A lot of people were won over to us after that.”
Before the Leinster clash, Saracens have to cross the Channel to meet French champions Clermont Auvergne on 9 October. It will be Sarries’ first Heineken Cup match since the 2007-08 season and as Goode didn’t make his first-team debut until May 2008 it’s set to be his first taste of the competition. With Parisians Racing Métro in their pool too, Saracens are up against it, but Goode isn’t fazed.
“The initial reaction to the draw was, ‘Brilliant, we’ve got a group of death here’. But the old cliché is right – to be the best you have to beat the best. Leinster have set a precedent in the last few years with how good they’ve been and Clermont are an extremely talented side. But why not play the best and enjoy it? I’ve never been in awe of any player I’ve played against but I’ve massive respect for Brian O’Driscoll and if I can stand toe to toe with him and not look out of place I’ll be delighted.”
Saracens met French opposition in last season’s Amlin Challenge Cup and spent their pre-season tour in Biarritz, so Goode is certain they can cope with their two French adversaries. “I watched Clermont against Racing on ESPN and they’re very powerful teams, but we’re not a bad team either!” he says. “The French sides haven’t adapted much to the new interpretations of the laws and there is still a lot of kicking. They’re not playing at the quicker tempo we have seen in the Premiership.”
Goode has excelled for England Saxons but hasn’t made the step up to the Elite Player Squad yet and, with the World Cup less than a year away, time is running short. Added to which, Saracens coach Brendan Venter has promised Goode at least a dozen starts in the No 10 shirt this season, so the 22-year-old is adapting to a new role after playing most of his professional rugby at full-back, while trying to impress Martin Johnson. But Goode is not only a talented player, he’s also confident, intelligent, level-headed and ready for the challenge.
“There’s quite a lot of pressure on me, so people keep telling me! I know it’s going to be a tough transition (to fly-half). It’s not a position you can just step into. You have to worry about the whole team and getting the best out of everyone going forward. You need to have a thicker skin playing there. You’re going to make mistakes because you can’t possibly make 100% correct decisions in any game. But I’m putting a lot of time into my game and the key for me is to listen to the people I trust, whether I’m playing well or badly.”
Goode’s sights are set on a World Cup place and he hopes some assured performances in the Heineken Cup will stand him in good stead. “It’s the superior competition in Europe and a chance to really put yourself out there. These are the big games the selectors really look at and you need to put down a marker. I know I can play well in big pressure matches, because the Premiership final and the Churchill Cup final were two of my best performances last year.
“If you play well against Brian O’Driscoll and Gordon D’Arcy there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be involved in the England set-up. If I’m not involved in the autumn Internationals I just need to make sure I’m showing consistency as a No 10. I think that’s what the England management want to see from a young guy like me.”