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De Goede relishing second act at Saracens: 'I definitely feel like I've evolved as a player'

By Martyn Thomas
DUNEDIN, NEW ZEALAND - OCTOBER 27: Sophie de Goede of Canada rugby warms up ahead of the WXV1 match between England and Canada at Forsyth Barr Stadium on October 27, 2023 in Dunedin, New Zealand. (Photo by Joe Allison/Getty Images)

When Sophie de Goede returned to Saracens in September, she did so with a sense of unfinished business.

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It was not only the Allianz Premier 15s title that De Goede missed out on during her first spell at the club, during the Covid-impacted 2020-21 season.

Restrictions in place to combat the spread of the virus meant matches were played behind closed doors and also limited opportunities to mix with her new team-mates outside of games and training.

Moreover, being billeted with women’s director of rugby Alex Austerberry on the Kent coast, while idyllic, put distance between De Goede and the bright lights of London.

“Now, [I’m] closer into everything, it’s easy to hop on a train and get wherever you need to go. So, I feel I’m getting more of a London experience,” De Goede tells RugbyPass as she prepares to make her second Saracens debut against Loughborough Lightning on Saturday.

“Last time I was here it was during Covid so everything was closed, and you couldn’t really go out and explore that much or even hang out with team-mates that much outside of training.

“So, it’s nice now to have an opportunity to do cool things, that you’d associate with living abroad and living overseas and actually get to know my team-mates a bit better.”

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It isn’t only her colleagues whom the Canada captain is developing a better understanding of this time around. “I think Sarries as a club really prides itself on the relationships and the people side and the family aspect of the club,” De Goede adds.

“And because it was Covid the last time I was here, you couldn’t have those close relationships and really get to know people and spend a lot of time together and even interact with coaches and staff on the men’s side or players from the men’s side.

“Even going into our clubhouse at our training ground… you couldn’t just hang out in there. So, I feel like now I get a better understanding of the actual club of Saracens and how tight knit it is and how much pride there is associated with playing for the club.”

That pride in the jersey and the club has yielded three titles since the English top flight was restructured in 2017 and there is a burning desire to reclaim the championship in the first year of Allianz Premiership Women’s Rugby (PWR).

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De Goede, fresh from a first training session since returning from WXV 1 that she describes as “nice and competitive”, is happy to report that all the players are pulling in the same direction.

“We lost in the final last time I was here to Quins and then I know they lost in the semis last year, so I feel like everyone that was here last year is kind of on a similar page to where I’m at in terms of wanting to get the job done and go all the way,” she explains.

“It’s a way more challenging league I feel like than even just two years ago when I was last here.

“There’s way more parity across the league and I think each weekend you’re going to have to prepare like it’s a play-off game because as much as there’s depth on our team there’s incredible depth across the league and the talent pool is just getting stronger and stronger.”

Standing on the verge of the PWR season, and only her second ever match at StoneX Stadium in front of fans, De Goede later confides that she is “looking forward to having no weekends off” between now and 22 June as Saracens target another title triumph.

That level of commitment is certainly on brand for a player who captained Canada to fourth place at Women’s Rugby World Cup 2021, second in the inaugural WXV 1 tournament last month and was selected in the World Rugby Women’s 15s Dream Team of the Year in 2022.

So, does De Goede feel she is a better player than the one who left North London two years ago? “Yeah, I mean I’d hope so,” she says, laughing.

“I think I’ve evolved my skill set, but also just last time I was here I was in full sponge mode, I just wanted to soak everything in.

“I definitely have an aspect of that this time, I think there’s so much to learn from everyone on our squad and from the coaches as well. But I think I’m coming into it with a bit more confidence as well in my own ability to read the game and my own decision making and skills.

“So, I think that will allow me to be more assertive on field and really be a stronger presence on both sides of the ball. So, I definitely feel like I’ve evolved as a player, but I feel like there’s a long ways to go and that’s why I’m here, because I feel like Saracens is going to be the best environment for me to continue that growth as a player.”

De Goede’s journey to this point has certainly been an interesting one. The daughter of two former Canada captains, Stephanie White and Hans de Goede, her earliest memories are of being on a rugby pitch, helping her parents to put out cones for training.

She idolised All Blacks legends Dan Carter and Richie McCaw growing up and having begun her own playing career as a scrum-half, at one stage looked destined to follow in the footsteps of the former as an accomplished fly-half.

De Goede’s accuracy from the kicking tee is a reminder of those earlier days spent in the half-backs, a skill that continued to be nurtured even after she “started to fill out into my body” and was moved by a former coach to number eight in her late teens.

“Sometimes I find myself playing a bit of a ten role in and around the pitch,” De Goede admits. “I have to remind myself to jump back into the mix!”

Despite her lineage, it was not always guaranteed that De Goede would sign up for the family business and become an international rugby player.

The list of sports she played in school is as long as it is varied, and she would excel as a power forward for the Queen’s Gaels basketball team when not starring for the Ontario university at rugby.

Ultimately, though, it was the physicality of the latter sport that proved decisive. “When I was struggling on the rugby pitch, I just wanted to go shoot hoops and relax a bit to just kind of be in your own head,” De Goede says.

“But I was never known as the best shooter, so when my shots weren’t falling on the basketball court, I always just wanted to go hit someone on the rugby pitch. And eventually that sentiment won out.”

Basketball’s loss has most definitely been rugby’s gain and it is easy to forget, given the maturity with which she speaks and the fact that 21 of her 29 test caps have been won as captain, that De Goede is still only 24.

However, while becoming the face of Canadian rugby, it has been beneficial to be able to call on the advice of two people who know what it takes to captain your country, on and off the field.

“I have so many incredible people in my life to lean on, but none are of more importance to me than my parents,” De Goede says. “They’ve been with me every step of the way.

“They probably know how I think, feel and operate better than I do. And so, they’re really good guidance for me when times are good, but especially when times are tougher, and I have to navigate different challenges.

“They’ve been in these shoes before and so I definitely can rely on them both for guidance about on-field decision making and the way that you need to act and play.

“But honestly, I find the job of a captain is the toughest off field, and I think that’s where I’ve really been able to lean on them and learn about that kind of relationship building and conflict resolution and all that good stuff. So, it’s been really good to have them as a resource and I’m definitely lucky.”

Saracens fans will hope that if De Goede can put those learnings into practice in North London then the Canadian will get an opportunity to finish what she started back in 2020.

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