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Saracens back on their perch to continue the dynasty

Despite spirited resistance from Sale Sharks, few members of the Twickenham crowd doubted Mark McCall's men would wrestle back their Premiership crown

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'He's certainly the man for England, I’d be shocked if he weren’t'

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Brad Barritt went all quiet on RugbyPass when asked to name the one player he most liked playing with during his stellar career. “Just one player?” he queried before an uncomfortable silence ensued. Sixteen seconds passed before the conflicted former England and Saracens midfielder offered an apology. “Sorry, you really put me on the spot,” he deflected before embarking on another momentary hush while he scrambled for a seemingly elusive answer.


Eventually, it arrived. “Manu Tuilagi,” he beamed. “We had two years (together) in the England team, an exceptional talent, an exceptional player and someone that is respected amongst his peers and his opponents. As a 13 he was someone I loved playing with in an England context. From a club level, there were too many to choose from. But he was my favorite England partner.”

Barritt was a starter in 23 of the 28 Test caps he earned, all during the Stuart Lancaster era, and Tuilagi was his most regular partner. They paired up eleven times, considerably more than his other combos (Owen Farrell 3, Billy Twelvetrees 3, Jonathan Joseph 3, Kyle Eastmond 2, Sam Burgess 1).

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Maro Itoje | All Access | Episode 2 – What is it like playing for Saracens rugby club?
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Maro Itoje | All Access | Episode 2 – What is it like playing for Saracens rugby club?

The struggle Barritt had in picking just a single favourite player followed his wish not to select a Dream Team XV consisting of teammates from his many years soldiering with Saracens and, before that, the Sharks. “It would be very difficult and also it is not in my personality to favour any friend.”

Why? “Because during a period of time, different people would be very strong candidates and it depends on the context of the team we are going to play. Are you going to beat a team by 50 points or are you going to win a do-or-die challenge? That is part of the context that needs to be put.”


The much safer footing on which the Zoom call began centred on Barritt and his exploits after rugby. It was September 2020 when the boots were shelved, the Saracens skipper going out on his shield in a frustrating Heineken Champions Cup semi-final loss at Racing. Since then, Cape Town has become his home.

He now works as managing director for Pollinate, a company creating bank-deployed digital tools for small businesses around the world. Tiki Tonga Coffee Roasters, the enterprise he co-founded while still a player, is also still excelling. “I count myself very grateful,” he enthused on a sunny South African Wednesday morning.


“I was encouraged from a very early age to pursue opportunities outside of sport, so I’m very grateful for my parents and my support network. I did a masters in business management whilst in the UK, set up various small businesses while playing – one of which is thriving today. We have Tiki Tonga Coffee Roasters both in the UK and here in South Africa.

“But also at the culmination of my career I was given an incredible opportunity to help spearhead a UK fintech company that wanted to expand into South African territory. Pollinate International is in the payment space that works with global tier-one banks and I have been working with the team for two-and-a-half years.

“It has been great in terms of allowing me to give my kids the childhood that I was exposed to, to be amongst aunts and uncles, cousins, grandparents, have a bit more family support for them but in equal respect, I still having that strong connection to the UK and working with the UK team. I sort of go back every three, four months to realign with HQ there.”

All the while, Barritt’s body has reacted nicely to no longer being a rugby player. The now 36-year-old has taken up the sport of padel and won’t risk a golden oldies rugby appearance for fear that his remodelled nose might suffer a bang. “My new passion is a sport called padel, a hybrid of tennis and squash, played on half the side of a tennis court with perspex – it’s a huge sort of boom sport in South Africa.


“It’s something that I have really taken a strong liking to and it has thankfully allowed me to slightly resemble a centre and not a hooker. My body is very happy. The one big surgery I had to have was a full nose reconstruction in December 2020.

“I’d an 11-and-a-half-hour operation to repair my septum and my sinuses. I had a rhinoplasty, had to have specialist turbinate surgery. Thankfully, now I can breathe perfectly and it slightly resembles what it looked like when I was maybe 14,” he chuckled.

How long had he soldiered during his rugby career with the issue? “I’d two previous surgeries, an initial operation in 2006 which was a sinuplasty, my sinuses were effectively crushed and started to cave in. That repaired it, and it was then subsequently repaired around 2011.

“I always knew it was a thing I needed to have done but all the surgeons said, ‘When you do it, it has to be definitive’. It’s maybe the one thing keeping me on the sidelines from any old crock’s games, that I can’t go through that pain of surgery on my nose again.”

What has Barritt on the laptop from the southern hemisphere is this weekend’s Gallagher Premiership semi-finals, a four-team line-up that unsurprisingly features Saracens who will host Northampton in London on Saturday. The retired 12-season Sarries veteran last saw his old club live in person at last year’s final, a decider that had the sting in the tail of Freddie Burns’ decisive last-gasp drop goal.

“I came over; a fantastic game. Great to see the two dominant English powerhouses back in the final with Leicester and Saracens. It was quite strange having Steve Borthwick coaching the Leicester team as he was my first captain at Saracens as well as two former colleagues, Chris Ashton and Richard Wigglesworth, spearheading that Leicester team. You have to give them credit – on the day they were the better team and we may very likely see those two teams go head-to-head again in a few weeks’ time.”

If Saracens make it, it would be their eighth league showpiece appearance at Twickenham with Mark McCall at the helm as director of rugby. Barritt can’t say enough about his former mentor. “Mark is an incredible figure at Saracens,” he gushed. “He has a relentless dedication to his role and that really has filtered down through the other coaching staff and into the playing group.

“One of the best attributes about Mark is there is no ego; everything he does is to push the team forward to make sure the team is in a better position week after week. Another strength is utilising the skill set of the coaches he has working with him, as well as a very experienced player group, allowing them the opportunity to collaborate, share and shine in equal capacity. He has been a galvanising force and has been driving that for a long period of time. Saracens are hugely grateful.”

Is there one McCall pep talk that still stands out in Barritt’s mind? “My last Premiership final,” he said, recalling the dramatic 2019 comeback win over Exeter. “The week before I pulled up before half-time (28 minutes in versus Gloucester), pulled my hamstring quite considerably. There was just a backing from Mark in the early stages of that final week, ‘Listen, if you feel you are ready, we all back you, we want you here, you go as long as you go and the team will support you’.

“Inevitably, against medical advice, I just went ahead with it, played the game. I played maybe 45, 50 minutes, and it was just that confidence and support that both Mark and the player group gave, saying, ‘We want you on the pitch. We realise there may be something missing, but we know your character. You go out there and do your thing. We are blessed to have a fantastic squad, so we can make it happen’. That obviously is just one instance that I’m very grateful for.”

It’s the sort of enlightened husbandry that Saracens skipper Farrell is now the likely beneficiary of at the age of 31 following his difficult Guinness Six Nations with England, a campaign affected by some scratchy kicking and his high-profile demotion to the bench versus France despite being the team skipper.

Barritt, who coincidently made his England debut versus Scotland in 2012 in a midfield partnership with Farrell, is backing his Saracens pal to bounce back and go on to lead his country at the Rugby World Cup as the starting No10 in Borthwick’s team. “Owen has proved he is a force of nature over a long period of time,” he surmised.

“He has that application to task and dedication to his craft, he is a great student of the game – he looks to improve not only his performance but also the team’s performance, is deeply analytical around how things can be moved forward, how the games can be refereed, how the laws allow the game to be a bit more free-flowing.

“With the advent of the 50:22, you have seen that development of Saracens’ attacking game and the risk-taking approach has been spearheaded by Mark, Owen and the greater collective group. He has always had a really strong conversion to be the best version of himself and he has the respect of anyone who has played with and continues to play with him for the way he carries himself. He sets very high standards.

“He is an incredibly resilient guy,” continued Barritt, referencing Farrell’s tricky recent Six Nations. “Despite that being a difficult period, he would have taken it on the chin, would have absorbed it, learned from it, and ultimately what transpired was Owen being put back to where he probably feels most comfortable [out-half] and where he has played the majority of his rugby.

“He is the man who likes to take on the responsibilities of running and dictating an attack as well as spearheading it from the front. Sometimes in international rugby, these things happen [getting dropped]. Very few guys go 10-plus years in a career being favoured every week.

“That is also a great strength for the Premiership; there is an abundance of talent to pick from, but Owen had proved over a long period of time that he does it on the big stage and has the consistency to perform – he is certainly the man for England (at the World Cup). I’d be shocked if he weren’t.”

When Barritt exited Saracens, they were in a state of flux and grappling with the unknown – automatic relegation to the Championship. Mediocrity could have set in, but they refused to faff about as the culture that had evolved under McCall across the previous decade kept them focused and positive. That attitude has since restored them to the upper echelons of the English game.

“Culture is also an evolution, something that doesn’t stand still. Similar to a playing style, it evolves, it morphs, it changes its way. Fundamentally where Saracens flipped it on its head was previously, prior to that evolution and culture, players came with an air of anxiety of maybe not necessarily wanting it – they did their job and they left.

“The way in which Saracens harnessed that collective approach of guys genuinely being excited to get to the club every day to work hard, to drive standards forward, it wasn’t a pigeon-holed, robotic-type atmosphere. There was constant engagement, shuffling things.

“An Alex Sanderson or one of the groups would put on a presentation just to really raise the emotional energy; the opportunity to play football for 10, 15 minutes before a really pivotal training session and to just be able to flip the switch on and off. That has really been a strong strength of Saracens – we enjoy the good times but when the opportunity to flip the switch came and to focus and dedicate yourself to your craft, the team and the collective culture were strong enough to do that.”

  • BT Sport is the home of Gallagher Premiership Rugby. Watch exclusive live coverage of both semi-finals on BT Sport this weekend, including Saracens v Northampton Saints on BT Sport 2 from 3pm on Saturday. Sale Sharks v Leicester Tigers is live on BT Sport 1 from 2:30pm on Sunday. Visit


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