As Saracens men and women prepare to defend their English titles, we speak to two back-row stars...
Saracens Women won the Tyrrells Premier 15s last season, while the men’s team clinched the Premiership title. While they had the same name, the women and men had previously operated as separate entities, but this season the two sides have been brought together.
We got to see that up close when we visited Allianz Park for a fans’ day recently and you can find out more about that in the new issue of Rugby World magazine, which is out now.
We also sat down with back-rowers Marlie Packer and Jackson Wray to get their thoughts on the new season, with the men kicking off against Newcastle this Sunday and the women beginning their season away to Firwood Waterloo on 8 September…
Rugby World: What was the key to the women’s Premier 15s success last season?
Marlie Packer: I think the strength within the whole squad, not just from one to 23 but all the other players within the set-up. Obviously we lost international players around Six Nations time and some of those games were critical, like we got a draw with Gloucester-Hartpury – that one point we really needed.
I think our turning point, when we thought we could go the whole way and win it, came pretty late in the season. It was when we played Gloucester-Hartpury away in the semi-final. We won that by a lot of points, but for a lot of the season most of our tries came from the forwards, but the backs were on fire that day. Everything seemed to click and the whole squad were en pointe.
RW: How about for the men? Was it the way you rebounded from seven losses in a row in all competitions?
Jackson Wray: I think all the bits we learnt along the way helped us win it. By the end of the season, not in terms of playing but how we were day-to-day, we changed massively from where we started. So how we prepared throughout the year. That tough period taught us a lot about ourselves.
When you lose or don’t play well, that’s when you find the most out. We stripped a lot back and we focused on other things which ultimately led to us playing some unbelievable stuff towards the end of the year – blowing teams away, physically out-doing teams. That was down mainly to that tough period.
It was more a case of us having done things the same for so long; it worked really well and then we realised the pressures and challenges were different. That’s when we realised that we had so much experience, so many top players who had played at the highest level so as a group we were in a different place than we were. We used the group experience to learn from each other and to guide what we do and really find out the direction we wanted to go in.
Related: Premiership Players to Watch
We turned a corner and started playing some really good stuff, as well as getting some injured players back – we had some savage injuries last season, which really tested our 60-man squad. At some points we were missing 18 or 20 players for periods. But we picked up points in tough periods. It was a mixture of things.
We won the league last year but it feels like we haven’t in lots of ways.
RW: What can change this time around?
MP: This season we’ve got a new head coach in Alex Austerberry. This season is about lifting, going again and looking at the things that went right last season, but there are a lot of things that we maybe didn’t quite do as a team. So we have a bit more structure. We actually need to become more of a team again, but keep that winning philosophy.
Our personal discipline can improve. If you look back to our final in Ealing, Quins could have beaten us if they’d kicked a few of the penalties we gave away. We got let off there. Our defence was phenomenal and we went three or four games without conceding a point, so we need to keep making sure we work hard on that and in attack we need to get our big ball-carriers on the ball, but have that structure between us and buy in.
We should play very differently, but still excitingly this season.
RW: What about aligning the men’s and women’s teams? There is now more access to staff etc, but what’s it like being under one flag now?
MP: It suits the women to have the Saracens identity and to play here at Allianz Park is phenomenal, like using the home changing room. That is different from most teams in the Tyrrells Premiership because week in, week out they won’t get the same facilities. We train here too, which is awesome.
It has all come in time. We can say we want more of this and more of that, but we need to let our rugby do the talking. It’s been phenomenal that the men and women have won the Premiership. That’s helped us gain a partnership, helped us get up there for a merger with the men so if we keep doing what we’re doing, playing at the standard we’re playing at, then who knows, in a couple of seasons we might get an off-season (trip) with the boys and show them a thing or two!
The gap is closing and they’re supporting us massively.
RW: How has Saracens changed over the years?
JW: It’s come miles. When I first came here, two generations of coaches ago when Alan Gaffney was here, it was massively different. To be honest, the young guys were nowhere near. Honestly probably as far away as the women have been in the past. That’s how different it was. It didn’t change for a while. Then changes came, bringing everything closer together so it’s a squad of 60 with the academy involved.
It’s very, very difficult to not get better if you’ve got people here who are working hard, doing what they do, alongside good coaches. Then we had to evolve and get better again…
There’s probably a handful of us still here. That was the start. My age group and Alex Goode just before that; we’re all still here and that is a really important thing in a load of ways as you can make sure the thing carries on. It’s light years away from what it used to be.
MP: I think that’s across the board in the women’s section. There’s a lot of old-timers. Sonia Green has been here for years and years, and I can remember playing her as a wee snapper for Bristol. I think Saracens have definitely got that (thing that makes people stay).
I can remember playing for Bristol, looking in at Sarries and thinking, ‘They’ve got something special. They get it all given to them, nice kit etc.’ But when I came here, it’s actually hard work and it’s the players that drive that. People want to play for the club, there’s that desire and it’s not just done on people pushing money.
RW: How do you stop things from getting stale?
JW: We’ve been working on a lot of new things…
RW: Can you share any details?
JW: Probably not, no! We’re always thinking of ways to be better. Loads of little things. We’re talking about tactics, techniques, all sorts. There’s not one part of the game that will be the same as last year. We’re trying to take the things that didn’t go as well and make them better in every area. If we weren’t doing that we’d be standing still, which you don’t want to do.
Read more about changes at Saracens in the latest issue of Rugby World – in shops now.
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