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How Swinson went from Barbarians fiasco to real deal at Saracens

By Liam Heagney

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It is safe to say it has been a remarkably rejuvenating 15 months for ex-Scotland lock Tim Swinson since he ended a six-day retirement to go on and play for Saracens. The 34-year-old helped the fallen giants to regain their Gallagher Premiership status, was voted players’ player of the season by his dressing room colleagues, agreed to a one-year contract extension and will now run out this Sunday at The Rec ready to renew his ‘opposites attract’ second row partnership with a certain Maro Itoje.

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Life hasn’t been all sweetness and light, though. It was this week last year when unimaginable darkness descended. Swinson was one of the 13 Barbarians caught out socialising and the infamous bubble breach resulted in the cancellation of the planned exhibition game versus England at Twickenham.

It was the sort of bewildering adversity that could have bowled over a less resilient character. Swinson was charged with being one of the ‘older and more experienced players who went out only on the Wednesday evening and then gave a false account‘. His sanction? A fine of three weeks wages, reduced to one and a half as a result of mitigation, along with a four-week match suspension, three of which were suspended subject to future conduct and completion of unpaid community work.

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What happened when RugbyPass went behind the scenes with the Barbarians
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What happened when RugbyPass went behind the scenes with the Barbarians

So far he has been involved in online dance and mobility via the Saracens Foundation and at the end of this month he will pair up with the Onside initiative that assists young offenders who have fallen foul of the law. For sure these are good deeds by Swinson, noble endeavours that will close the chapter on his involvement in a fiasco that Eddie Jones claimed reduced rugby to a laughing stock.

“As a situational moment it was really a moment of several really bad decisions personally and as a group of players,” admitted Swinson over the phone to RugbyPass from the Saracens training ground. “The only positives we can take out of it as a group is how we stuck together, rallied around and tried to own up to our mistakes.

“We showed that through our actions immediately after the incident and in the following weeks. It is certainly not a time I look back on fondly but I am trying to focus on the important stuff of what is happening going forward, doing the community work and really just trying to, I don’t know, not make the same mistake twice. Yeah, it wasn’t ideal.”

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Tell us about the community work? “It has been a mixed bag. I have signed up for Onside, which is about helping improve young offenders and people who have been on the wrong side of the law at a young age, to help them through rugby to gain employability skills and self-confidence to go back into the workforce. I was really keen that I wanted to do something really tangible and you could see it has a positive effect on not just the rugby community but also the community as a whole.

“That is starting at the end of October. Before that, I have done online dance and mobility classes through the Saracens Foundation, which does a lot of great work in North London. They do a lot of support in the community with disabilities. The focus is on mobility in the older residents of the local areas, particularly around Barnet, to be social with people, especially in moments of isolation.

“The classes would usually be face-to-face but doing an exercise class over Zoom was an interesting experience. It was rewarding. The instructors did a great job being able to get so much intensity and enjoyment across a screen essentially.”

It was last month when ex-England skipper Chris Robshaw spoke with RugbyPass about his own Barbarians legacy, mentioning how he was in discussion with RFU chief Bill Sweeney about ideas aimed at strengthening the links between the professional and grassroots sections of the sport. One suggestion was that rather than Owen Farrell be given a five-match ban for his September 2020 red card when playing for Saracens, that it would instead be reduced if he volunteered to coach at a grassroots level.

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That’s a suggestion which piques the interest of Swinson, whose work with the Scottish players’ union often left him mystified by the working of the disciplinary area of the sport. “My issue with the citing process, from a player’s point of view, is sometimes it is quite opaque why players get certain sentences for want of a better word. It’s just sometimes I don’t understand the differences, maybe because I am not in the room.

“I think anything that can involve a link between the professional and the amateur game would be fantastic. My only question would be perhaps should it necessarily be seen as a punishment? Surely more can be done to have that link without being forced to do it because something went wrong and you are having your sentence reduced. As part of a wider change of the professional rugby landscape, for that to be one of the changes, that is a fantastic idea from Chris.”

Enough, though, about the Barbarians and a night of high jinks to forget. What Swinson has achieved in becoming a Saracens regular is nothing to be sniffed at. It was around the time of hisĀ 33rd birthday when a chat with incoming Glasgow coach Danny Wilson resulted in the 38-cap forward opting to retire. He was at peace with that decision and yet he still somehow had his mind changed when Saracens got on the blower after his ‘I’m quitting’ decision was made official.

The London club always had a fond place in his heart. Swinson grew up near Bramley Road, playing minis at the ground before watching Saracens at Vicarage Road as a fan prior to embarking on his own professional career at Newcastle. It was March 2008 when he made his Falcons debut and here we are 13-and-a-half years later talking about a well-respected career that is enjoying quite an inspired final flourish.

His initial deal was only supposed to last through to the end of the Championship campaign, but so well did that go that he is revelling in the club’s return to the Premiership with another twelve-month contract. “I’m in a quite lucky position,” explained Swinson ahead of his fourth successive Saracens start this season.. “I felt ready to retire when I did. It [retirement] wasn’t made by the fact that no one wanted me at a club. I felt ready to retire.

I had not enjoyed rugby for a year or two-year period and I felt ready to move on with my next challenge, but I am really grateful for the opportunity to come down here. It was a club I supported in my childhood, I played with some of the coaches and it would be too good an opportunity to turn down. It highlights also why I chose to stay, that it is an opportunity that is a really good end to my career, to really enjoy rugby and playing.

“It wasn’t that I necessarily had to retire. If, for example, Mark (McCall) had come back and said there wasn’t a space for me after last season, I would still have been happy to retire then. Thankfully I am in a good position. I wouldn’t say I am completely settled (on what I want to do next) but I am in a good position moving forward in terms of transition so that is not such a scary feeling as it can be if retirement comes out of the blue because of injury or lack of selection or you just hadn’t planned well enough. I’m extremely happy about the opportunity.

“I only planned to stay for a year. We had a conversation about it in the new year and worked out that we both wanted to go ahead. It’s nice playing one more year. While it is good fun you might as well keep on doing it.”

Why has Swinson fitted the Saracens mould so well? “The basics are working hard and that is something I found quite easy to do, to keep going. I feel like once you start working hard, everything else falls into place. Although the Saracens players are extremely good and it can be quite an intimidating environment when you are new, I felt very lucky to have this opportunity to be with this team.

“They are very collaborative – they help you get better. It is not just about, ‘I’m great, so I’ll be fine’. They genuinely help the whole squad, from the guys who are in their first-year academy to guys like myself joining the club at 33. They genuinely want the whole squad and backroom staff to grow together. We socialise as a club and it is a really telling sign of why they have been successful.

“It is not just about a group of players. It’s about being together regardless of who you are, helping each other. I was also quite lucky I knew a lot of the players having played against them in various guises. We all sort of knew each other vaguely,” continued Swinson, struggling at times to be heard over some boisterous background laughter during a busy Friday lunchtime at the Saracens canteen.

“Being a forward I spend a lot of time doing forwards units, but just the way everyone speaks to each other during training sessions and communicates rather than just saying, ‘That’s crap, you have got to do that better’. It’s like, ‘Well, why don’t you try this?’ There is that feeling that if you are doing something it’s not because you don’t care or not trying, it’s because you genuinely think that is right and that is how it should be done and if it is wrong, help them learn what is right. The delivery of that is fantastic and it is a squad-wide trait.

“The guys you perceive as being the superstars are very willing to help everyone and that has been a real focus from when the current guys were the older guys in the academy. It is really about being together and understanding that it is not just a team of five people, it’s a team of 15, 23, however big the squad is. That really shines through with the understanding that everyone on the pitch has a role and we don’t need everyone to be doing exactly the same things, but if they can do what they do to the best of their ability then as a team we will be better. That is really useful.”

Especially when it comes to dovetailing with a second row partner as esteemed as Itoje, the much-celebrated Lions and England talisman. “Maro is a very good player. You call him a second row but he is a good rugby player, he is smart in what he does and he is doing really well. I can’t say much other than great things about him.

“The difference between me and him in terms of our playing styles highlights what rugby as a sport is, where you have got two guys who play the same position can do very different roles and we are just very aware that the team needs both of what we do. I don’t know if you would ever pick me over Maro but it just highlights how much of a team sport rugby is, where you can have two very different people playing the same position.”

Whatever happens in the future, Swinson will always take great pride in how Saracens negotiated the hurdles of their English second-tier campaign following automatic relegation for salary cap breaches. “The whole season was a challenge. We must have come into training four or five times from October through to February where they were saying ‘we are going to start playing games again on this date’ and you would get to the week before and it was pushed back.

“There was even a stage where we thought the season wasn’t necessarily going to happen. That uncertainty made it very difficult to keep focused. I had the longest pre-season of my career, it went on for six months or something silly like that. The other challenge was the style of rugby played in the Championship, older players who are more set-piece orientated, is incredibly different to the Premiership.”

The adventure eventually started in March with a dramatic thud, Saracens humbled on day one at Cornish Pirates, but it culminated three months later in Swinson getting voted his team’s players’ player of the year – quite an accolade for an old guy in a dressing room rammed with household names.

“There is a lot of conversation about that (Pirates) game. They played well, didn’t make as many mistakes as we did. There was a slight shift in our approach to our game plan and it was lucky it happened then rather than later in the season. It certainly was a wake-up call,” he suggested before skipping forward 15 weeks to how he learned he had become a Saracens dressing room favourite.

“It happened straight after we played the second final against Ealing. Apart from being absolutely knackered, which was my overall feeling, it was a great privilege. Saracens have a lot of quality players. Everyone knows the star names who go on tour with England and the Lions but it hides the fact there is quality at the club at every level.

“There is constant competition. I managed to get on board with a lot of stuff they were doing, really focused on working hard, and seeing it pay off by being noticed by everyone was just fantastic. Some guys joked it would be the perfect way to retire but, fortunately, I signed another year. To be voted players’ player of the year after only being at the club a year, I can’t really say how I realise how much of an honour that is.”

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How Swinson went from Barbarians fiasco to real deal at Saracens

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