Our man Jim Hamilton brings you the latest in his series of ‘Big Jim’s Big Interviews’, in which he chats to Saracens’ Alex Goode about the club’s signing of Wasps’ Elliot Daly, his continued exclusion by Eddie Jones’ England and freakish athletes like the Vunipola brothers and Maro Itoje.
Jim Hamilton: What’s wrong with your knee?
Alex Goode: I got a whack, a little knee-on-knee against Leicester. It’s a bit swollen but not too bad.
JH: Do you want to pull over or stay like this?
AG: I’m fine like this. It’s nice and easy. I can talk to you very comfortably.
JH: Are you in the Range?
AG: No, the Jaguar. Had it for a couple of months. Like it a lot. The 4×4 Jag is nice.
JH: It’s more comfortable for the older gentlemen, that is what you have done. You have gone from the fast cars to the more comfortable for the older man?
AG: Yeah, you know what they say Jim, you have only got one back. When you’re going up and down the M1 I have got to make sure I’m in a comfortable ride. With all these whipper-snappers and other full-backs at the club, I have to look after myself.
JH: Thank you for speaking to me at RugbyPass, Goodie. Talk to me about the season so far at Saracens?
AG: I’d like you to refer to me as Alex, to be very clear who you are talking to because every time I go to a rugby game I get called Andy repeatedly which its tough mate, it’s tough. I like the fella, I do, but I like think we have got slightly different metabolisms knocking around in our bodies but apparently not.
JH: You definitely have. Do you get recognised as Andy Goode’s brother or as in him?
AG: It’s just the reaction. He’s obviously more famous than me. People go ‘alright Andy’ and I’m ‘it’s Alex’. ‘Oh God, sorry I meant Alex. I can’t believe I said that’ and I’m ‘no, you did though and everyone else said it’. It makes me laugh.
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JH: I fell sorry for you, mate.
AG: Sarries had a really good start, flew out of the blocks really well. We’re in a good place. A lot of boys were rested at the start of the season and we have been playing some really good rugby and everybody is contributing. Every week it’s someone different getting man of the match or putting in a top performance, but everyone has been doing really well and the forwards have been very dominant as they always are.
Then the November international period came, we dug in and got two phenomenal results against Leicester, two really top results considering how many players we had out with injuries. Different boys took over and did really well. We had more of an attrition period in December where we knew deep down we weren’t playing that well and there were some frustrations among the group that we have high standards.
Sometimes when you’re trying to be better nothing is ever good enough and we didn’t appreciate the wins as much as we should have. That was something we looked at because sometimes when you’re searching for that target to be better it means you don’t appreciate when you beat a team and played well. You’re ‘we should have done this better, we should have done that better’. It’s something we looked at.
Obviously with the loss against Exeter, we just needed to go back to some of our basics and doing them better really was the key. That was good and we came back into the European period against Lyon and Glasgow where you saw two performances that were really good which led into the old LV Cup [Premiership Cup] with that Worcester semi-final win that was phenomenal and then we had a good result at the weekend against Leicester. It came off the back of us really putting aspects of our game together more. There was more cohesiveness in terms of defence and attack, it wasn’t just two separate areas. Our workrate off the ball was good. Generally, we put in some big performances which was great.
JH: That brings me in seamlessly to Stretts [David Strettle] doing an interview where he spoke about this international period where teams think it’s opportunity for them to get a result against Saracens. Who is leading the charge when the boys are away?
AG: There is group of leaders still there. Wiggy [Richard Wigglesworth] has a lot of experience. Brad [Barritt], myself, Jackson [Wray], there’s good leaders there and you have still got the likes of Schalk Burger who didn’t play Saturday but who is a leader among everyone. Vincent Koch has taken a lead in the scrums. Like anything, people do have to step up in those situations and take control. Calum Clark was a big leader in the LV and helped massively at the weekend. There is always lots of experience in there, but it is also a chance for other guys.
Matt Gallagher comes in, gets man of the match and it’s fantastic. For a young player that is massive. As a young player ultimately you need a chance. If you’re in there and you take it, you do all the basics really well and you can do more than that, the coaches go ‘yeah, he is ready for that level’ and they can trust you in any game. That is the ultimate compliment for a young player. There were other players like that. I thought Ben Earl was exceptional.
JH: I have always been a big fan of Matt Gallagher, he was awesome but has come in at 15, so let’s touch on Elliot Daly as well. When that signing came through how did that make you feel? Do you think Saracens are adding to the squad, do you see it as competition, how do you see it working with Liam Williams and now Mark Gallagher coming through?
AG: My first reaction was another world class player is coming to the club. Saracens is everything to me, the only club I have ever been at and I want to win as much as possible with the club. Obviously, I prepare to play every week but I saw it straight away as a good signing. He is a quality, quality player. What he brings to any side, whether it is his versatility or just what he does on the field, his speed, his physicality, he’s a good little player and he adds to the squad. For me, that is brilliant.
Also, if you look at it, he is 26 years old and we have got him for three or four years. It may not seem logical for him to be in our side this year but in the years after that there is a lot of players like myself, Sean Maitland, Brad, Marcello [Bosch], a few of the backs who are older, and he is that natural progression. We can’t play forever. I’m not calling those guys out, I’m just saying that ultimately the club has to keep pushing and pushing and evolving and someone like Elliot is brilliant to come in.
Obviously, he can play full-back. He is a brilliant full-back, but at the same time I’m always on my toes. I’ve had Liam Williams here for two years and if I don’t play well enough he will take my position. Matt Gallagher, wonderful player. But I think when you’re at a club like Saracens, a top, top club, always vying for trophies, you know if you’re not playing well enough then someone else will come in and that’s a fact. It always motivates you to play better and to drive you on to keep doing your extras. It keeps you working hard.
My first reaction was brilliant signing. He is a quality player who will add so much, but the fact he wants to be at Saracens, it speaks volumes. It’s brilliant. With regards to me, it’s up to me to keep playing well and to make sure I’m putting in the performances so that I deserve the shirt. If I’m not then there is other guys who will take it.
AG: You probably need to ask him that. All I know is that Loz moved around quite a bit in the early stages, a bit of 10, from 12 to 13 to wing, he played full-back. He’s in danger of becoming a Swiss army knife, which is great for the club but maybe doesn’t help your international aspirations. He wanted to have a good stint at one role, a bit like Chris Wyles said to Mark McCall a couple of years back. With Loz they just want to give him a chance to nail down that centre role, work hard and get better and better.
We saw glimpses of him in European Cup, and in the Premiership semi-final last year against Wasps when he was outstanding. We have seen him in an England shirt as well. I think they just want to give him a really good chance of getting that (centre) role, to improve and get better and better. I guess for the first time in a while we have cover at 15 and it allows him [McCall] to play guys like Liam Williams or Matt Gallagher so that I can move to 10.
JH: We’re not looking for a headline but I have got to ask, do you want to still play for England and having been nominated for European player of the year along with Mako [Vunipola], what are the conversations being had around that? Have you had a conversation with Eddie Jones on why you are not even in the squad?
AG: I haven’t spoken to him much but I did speak to him before this Six Nations.
JH: Who made the contact?
AG: He contacted me and we had a little chat. I have got to keep it between me and him but the door is still open. I told him the fire burns fiercely inside me and would love to be in that World Cup squad and be involved in it. England is everything to me and he knows that. I have just got to keep playing well, to keep putting my hand up week in week out, keep playing well in these big games and then we’ll see from there. All I can do is keep knocking on the door, keep myself healthy and then believe I have a chance.
JH: What is he [Jones] saying you need to improve on? Is it aerially because it’s clearly not attack?
AG: He has not said anything about workload. Just keep moving well, keep attacking well.
JH: Tick, tick. What else?
AG: It’s just keep myself healthy, keep myself prepared and ready. Who knows what will happen. And just look after myself. There was positivity in that but I’m also realistic. Elliot Daly is playing very well for England at the moment. The England team is playing very well, but you can’t look at the England games every week and think I’m never going to get a chance. You have got to focus on the club, play well for Saracens, do that every week and hope the chance comes. It wasn’t a negative conversation at all. I have just got to keep playing well.
JH: Are you desperate to be out there? Is there something inside you where you’re gutted you’re not playing? Or is it a case you know you’re playing and watching and supporting the lads, or is there a part of you that is really desperate to get out there?
AG: Massively (desperate to get out there). I always say the worst thing for me is hearing the national anthem which is actually my favourite moment as a player wanting to be there. You know that as a player when it’s a home game and you just hear the crowd belting out the anthem and the hair on the back of your neck just stands up, it’s such passion. It’s amazing, the greatest feeling you have playing for your country, so not to be able to do that is really hard. I’d love do it. It’s obviously disappointing, gutting in that sense.
But the other side of it is I’m an England fan, I have got a good friends playing in those games and I want them to go unbelievably well. I’m proud of them in a very non-male way for what they are doing and how well they are playing for England. Seeing the guys I know who work so hard at the club go out and play incredibly well in the international arena and defy critics with performances that everyone across the country is proud of and thinks they are incredible, that is great. I want them to do really well.
And even guys I don’t play with, I still want them do well for England. They are guys I have been in camp with, they are people I know well and the England team just playing well is brilliant. You see how happy it makes everyone, how much they get into rugby and talk about it. There is a buzz at the moment. If they can get over the line against Wales, which will be an incredibly tough game down in the Millennium, then people will start to really believe we are building for this World Cup.
JH: Good on you. Last two questions and they are Saracens-related. Only one line answers are needed. You have been at Saracens since 2008, so you have seen a lot of players come in, a load of changes…
JH: …the researcher has done a good job mate. What changes have you seen at the club?
AG: When Brendan Venter and Edward Griffiths came in the transformation was a huge change. It changed the culture more than anything else. Not performance, just culture. How we were with each other, how we went about treating each other, how the club looked after us, and the results off the back of it were phenomenal.
JH: Correct. And in your time, I don’t know whether you can say freak but we will say it anyway, but of all the players you have played with in a game that has changed beyond belief, who has been the best athlete, the best kind of guy you have looked at and thought ‘wow’, apart from myself and Petrus du Plessis?
AG: Jim, you didn’t see Mako’s comment. He said the [Mike] Rhodes pass at the weekend was like a Jim Hamilton pass. Not quite the Aurillac pass that we always talk about, your favourite, which you take a lot of stick for. But we all know that Chris Ashton managed to slice the ball so far off the field that it went over that stand and out to the thirds team pitch… but the best athlete?
JH: The game changer, the one who has come in, has come through and you’re like, ‘right he has changed the game’?
AG: I wouldn’t say change the game and bear in mind he has a slight bit of Borthism [Steve Borthwick], but Schalk Brits, he is very freakish in terms of his power, a really power athlete. He obviously ate a lot of protein as a kid but very very powerful. The things he can do in tight spaces, get hit extremely hard, still offload and hit people very hard. He has a level of aggression that makes him very special. Everyone has seen the skills but it is that power and aggression that makes him very good.
But I think really as athletes, when you look at the current generation as you go on, it’s very hard to look past the Vunipolas who are brilliant. They look like a bag of sick, both of them, but they’re incredible. Their footwork, their power, their game understanding to go with it is brilliant. I have seen Billy get lined up by three lads trying to smash him and he just drives the tackle, takes them on. They all try and choke-tackle him and he just drives on, gets to ground and gets the ball back in one second and you’re ‘how does he do that?’ And Mako’s the same. Brilliant. But I remember a story with Maro Itoje. I have done four people here so I have really narrowed it down to for you to choose.
JH: We’re going to use all of them. This isn’t even an article, it’s a book.
AG: When Maro Itoje came in, I remember his first day of pre-season and he has just come out of school. He had only left about a week before and they are doing testing for the academy guys. He came in and he didn’t even know his own strength, it was freakish. He was doing chin-ups, those things where there is a bar above your head and you try and lift your own weight, lift your head to the same level as your arms.
He came in first day, started on 20 kilos. It was a one rep max and he did it and then proceeded to go up and up and up and up. He was so unaware. He ended up having 74 kilos around his waist and proceeded to do a chin-up with ease. This a a guy a couple of days out of school.
Most people who are good at chin-ups are light players, strong arms, their stretch is very good, all arms no legs. But Maro is a big set guy and his arms are so long, so powerful. Then he can run as well, he’s quick. The guy is an athlete. Pure athleticism? He has got to be right up there.
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