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'I was obese. I was eating burgers every day, microwave pizzas was me dinner, chocolate biscuits for breakfast'

By Liam Heagney

Trending on RugbyPass

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Saracens tighthead Alec Clarey is buzzing. Next Saturday’s near 300-mile spin south from London to Penzance for the opening round of the much delayed Championship sounds like quite a slog for the 2019 Gallagher Premiership and Heineken Champions Cup champions who are used to far more glamorous fixtures and salubrious surroundings on their travels than the rustic Mennaye Field. 

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Clarey, though, won’t complain one iota. He served his scrummaging apprenticeship visiting second-tier outposts such as Cornish Pirates and has nothing but the utmost respect for the invaluable role they and other unfashionable clubs like them play in the backwaters of English rugby. 

Saracens have had a few recent ‘friendly’ hit-outs to try and get their eye in but when they run out on March 6 it will be 22 weeks since they played their last Premiership game before relegation. The wait has felt like an eternity. 

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“Buzzing, buzzing, mate,” said Clarey to RugbyPass when asked about his excitement that a long-awaited campaign with Saracens is finally about to begin. “It’s actually great to have something to play for. It [the wait] was very frustrating. Lads need something to play for. You need something at the weekends to be right. It’s a challenge to stay motivated when you haven’t got a battle at the end of the week.  

“I hope to win (promotion) but people need to realise it’s a really tough league… A couple of lads have asked what it is like. I was at the Champ for about four years and all I have got to really share is that these lads are hungry in the Champ. They have nothing to lose. I don’t think there is relegation happening for this season coming up, so they have nothing to lose. They will be bringing their all and they will be going at it hammer and tong. They are not to be underestimated at all. 

These pre-season games, lads got a shock. It is going to be a big difference in terms of where we are going to play, officials and stuff like that when we go to the Champ. We did get a shock but I think the lads are really buying into it and really adapting to it well.”

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Clarey is a salt of the earth character from up north, someone whose appreciation of the game is as entertaining as his poetic way with words. Oozing personality, charm and quick wit, the recently turned 27-year-old is having the time of his life getting into the swing of things at Saracens where he has just extended his initial one-year deal for another twelve months.

He thought it was a wind-up last year when the call came from London to Jersey. Social media isn’t his thing, so he hadn’t a clue he had been linked with a move away from the island he had made his home after unfruitful stints elsewhere. “Because I’m not on social media, mate, I don’t know the crack with all that,” he explained.

“There wasn’t any other offers, like. I didn’t even hear about the Saracens one. A lot of people knew about Saracens being interested before I bloody did. There was another tighthead at Jersey and I thought they were interested in him. I was like, ‘Congratulations and all that’. Then out of the blue, and a lot of people knew before me, I was getting the call. I was proper buzzin’. I was delighted I was going to be stepping up.

“If I was completely honest with you, I was about four years in the Champ and I was at that point where if nothing was going to come along I am going to pack it all in. I was at that point in my life where I was just wanting to be back home if nothing big was going to come along and then obviously this Saracens thing came in. European champions, top of the tops, and I’m thinking to myself, bloody hell. I’m so lucky to have got that and I’m really grateful. I’m still in bewilderment with it, to be honest.”

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Bewildered maybe but a great fit nonetheless. Clarey could have gone into his shell when he first walked in the door at the Saracens training ground last summer, overwhelmed that he was suddenly teammates with icons of the world game such as Maro Itoje, Owen Farrell, the Vunipola brothers and numerous others. Instead, he mucked in straight away, happy to let his personality shine through to ensure there were no first-day nerves.

“How do I reflect on it? Even now I’m thinking back and thinking, Jesus, what an experience! You spend your life idolising these people and now you are on the level (with them). Obviously, the lads are away with England now and I’m just as privileged to be playing with the boys that I’m playing with now. I’m really lucky and very thankful that Saracens came and vouched for us and brought us into the family. That is how I reflect, just really thankful.

“Luckily enough when I first came down, I was starting training on Monday after so on the Friday before, I brought my family, me, me missus (Vanda), our eight-month-old who was a month-old at the time, I brought them all up and we just watched the lads train for a bit.

“After they had come off everyone was like, ‘You alright? How’s it going like?’ Proper canny. I wasn’t expecting that. That took me back because I didn’t know how things were going to go down, but everyone was just so canny so that was a big shock. And like the first day at training, probably the first thing I said was ‘alright like’ and just got into the conversation from there really. Nothing monumental.

“I have always been good with people and I just think you have got to go and get yourself stuck in and talk to people and know their story. Like I said, I was on cloud nine. I’d nothing to be apprehensive about. I just had this one chance and if I am going to make it it’s going to be now and if not it’s not going to happen. There is no point in being apprehensive about it. You might as well jump in the deep end.”

Introductory words from Saracens boss Mark McCall greatly helped Clarey. “He didn’t put any pressure on me. It was more, ‘Go out there and express yourself, we have seen you in the Champ so just express yourself, sharpen your tools’. That was basically it. No pressure, just go out there and do the best you can. Honestly, it was a breath of fresh air that I needed.”

It was for the challenge that will present itself over the next few months that Clarey was signed for, his Championship nous thought essential for the adventure of getting Saracens through the second tier and back to where they feel they belong among the game’s elite.

But the front row was no slouch when the sport in England resumed after the first lockdown last summer. Clarey featured in seven of the remaining Saracens Premiership games before relegation while also playing off the bench in the two knockout European matches, the heist at Leinster and the agonisingly unsuccessful semi-final raid at Racing. He loved every second, relishing the opportunity to go and test himself at levels he thought were unimaginable not that long ago.

“The Champ toughened us up, I genuinely think that,” he said about his worthwhile apprenticeship in the paid ranks at Jersey. “I needed the time in the Champ because it’s a very hard league to be in. Everyone’s rough as toast, everyone’s massive, so the Champ was a real shock for me back in the day.

“It really toughened us up and now I have come to Sarries, I’m just fine-tuning my skills a little bit more now. My skills are a bit better and I’m becoming a little bit more technical now I’m here. In the scrum, that’s improved quite a bit.

“Passing skills, oh man, back in the Champ I rarely passed. I wouldn’t trust myself to get that offload. I’m just having a bit more confidence in myself to go and put these skills to the test. At Sarries they give you a lot of freedom in training to express yourself around ball skills and actually stepping now and again, putting a cheeky step in which is something I wouldn’t have done.

“I’m doing a cheeky step but for some reason, I’m not actually going in a different direction. I don’t think I have left anyone in the dust with it yet. I don’t think it has fooled anyone but maybe one day it will,” he enthused with an infectious laugh before going on to remember those heady September European Saturdays in Dublin and Paris.

“It was definitely surreal. Some of the hotels, especially the one in Dublin, Jesus Christ, honestly like, it was something else. Like there was silverware at the tables. I’d never had that before. It’s stainless steel where I come from. It was mad, a proper surreal experience. I’m grateful for every second of it.

“I didn’t have to pinch myself. During both them games, I’d a broken toe so I definitely knew I was there. It wasn’t debilitating but it was just something that would rub in my boot now and again and I’d get a bit of a twinge. But when you are in the heat of battle you’re not bothered about little injuries like that. It was my baby toe, it rubbed a little in my boot. It didn’t impact anything. When you are full of adrenalin and you are at a stadium like that, you just don’t think about it [pain]. It was a really surreal experience.”

Making it all the more freakish that Clarey is on the roster with Saracens is his revelation that he didn’t play any rugby until he was 14. What was he doing prior to that? “Eating cheeseburgers, mate, to be honest. Yeah, God, I was obese. I remember I was eating Rustlers burgers every day.

“Those little microwave pizzas, the little round ones, that was me dinner. I was having chocolate biscuits for me breakfast and I remember I was sat on the couch, laid on the couch one day, and me mam came downstairs and she was like, ‘Jesus, we need to get you involved in a sport’ so I did everything. I did karate, boxing, all sorts, nothing clicked. And then I went down to Bishop Auckland rugby club, did a training session there and it just all seemed to fall into place.

“Bishop Auckland is a great place to start, great lads. It will spark your passion for it. What did I like about rugby? I always enjoyed running into things. I have always got a big kick out of that. To be honest, I like being part of a team, I like being part of something bigger than meself.

“I know I have people that have got my back. It’s a good feeling and then you go out with these people and you form like proper strong connections and great friendships. Socially, it’s great and it brought me out of my shell a lot.

“I’m about 124kgs,” he added when asked how much of the scales he tips these days. “I think I’m about right at the moment, I don’t think I want to go heavier. I have been up like 128 and I’m 5ft 10 so it’s not the best. My joints can’t hack it.

“I have been up to that weight [128] and I wasn’t comfortable so I have to keep an eye on it because I’m one of those people who puts on weight dead easily, really easy, so I have got to keep it in check. But 124 is about right for me,” he explained, adding that while he was busy making banana bread when RugbyPass called, he still enjoys the weekend cheat meal of “a big bolognese”.

London life with Saracens hasn’t been that major an adjustment for Clarey. “We’re living in Hemel and I’m used to going about. I’m originally from Co Durham and have been down to Gloucester, Bristol, Jersey, Leicester. I have been all over the show. I’m used to moving about.”

What is different is that being with a club like Saracens has provided a level of security tough to come by at Championship level, a tier of the game that Clarey wants to see thrive and prosper rather than struggle to make ends meet. “There is a lot of talent in the Champ. There is so much passion and fire. It’s a very tough league, a great league to be in, and anyone that has been in the Champ will tell you it probably did make them the rugby player they are today. It fashions you. Honestly, I’m all for the Champ, it’s class. They should look after it.

“I’ve been there, I have been on the bones of me arse, getting through month to month trying to make ends meet. I have been there. That is probably the worst part of it, the underpayment of a lot of the lads who actually are very passionate and probably do deserve a lot more, but it’s just the way it is.

“I’m not political, I don’t know what needs to be shifted about, what needs to be funded where, but that’s the worst part, just trying to get through the month. Especially in Jersey, Jersey is so expensive to live. I was very lucky. I’d a family and the club do their absolute best for the players, so you can’t take that away from them, but the wages are not great. That’s the worst part I’d say, but I don’t know what could be done to sort that out.”

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'I was obese. I was eating burgers every day, microwave pizzas was me dinner, chocolate biscuits for breakfast'

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