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Revealed: 'Wicked' pub meeting put Saracens on road to Prem final

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

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England international Elliot Daly has described how a pub meeting became the catalyst for Saracens to begin the remarkable journey that has taken them from automatic relegation from the Gallagher Premiership in January 2020 into this Saturday’s showpiece final versus Leicester at Twickenham.

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The Wicked Lady is a Harpenden pub that is an eight-minute spin from the Saracens training centre 3.6 miles away at Old Albanians and it was there two-and-a-half years ago when the London club’s star-studded cast assembled to talk through the ramifications of their dramatic top-fight expulsion.

Saracens’ England players had gone into camp following the European win that took place against Racing a few days after their automatic demotion was confirmed, but they gathered later that week to try and absorb the consequences of the dramatic decision that had been taken.

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The Breakdown | Sky Sport NZ | Episode 17
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The Breakdown | Sky Sport NZ | Episode 17

Key to what unfolded was Mark McCall having a discussion with England boss Eddie Jones regarding whether Championship rugby would affect the selection chances of Saracens’ international contingent and when word came back that it wouldn’t, a collective commitment was made by numerous star players to stand by the club during its year in the second tier.

Saracens proceeded to win the Championship title in June 2021 and their first season back in the Premiership final will now culminate in next Saturday’s title-deciding encounter against the Tigers. “It was a very weird, difficult time,” said seasoned England international Daly, casting his mind back to the extraordinary winter where the London club was knocked off its perch due to off-field shenanigans.

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“There were a lot of murmurings on what was going to happen and what points were going to be deducted. We got deducted (initially 35 in November 2019) and we were staying up and then they deducted us more points (in January 2020). It wasn’t just something set – it carried on pretty much for the whole season.

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“We didn’t really know until one of the Europen games, Racing at home, and that was the week where they told us we are getting relegated whatever happens. We met in a pub down the road when it all started kicking off and all the senior players were there. We had just come back from something (with England).

“We sat down in the room and didn’t really know what to say at the start because it was a very difficult situation to be able to deal with but we realised that as a club we needed to get the club back to where it belonged but we still wanted to play with England. It was a hard chat with everyone, and Eddie was actually brilliant with us when that all came out.

“Mark McCall spoke to him and said, ‘What is the craic here, do they need to go somewhere else for you to pick them?’ He basically said, ‘I will be watching the games.’ We didn’t have many but it was like. ‘I will be watching the games and if they are still performing at the level they will be in camp and then they will be in contention’.

“That is what we needed to hear at that point because we didn’t know what to do, didn’t really know where to be guided, so after that conversation, it was obvious that we were all going to try and stay.

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“Nick (Tompkins) had to go, Ben Earl, Max (Malins) because they want to play Test rugby. They need to play week in and week out, not in a season where we don’t know where the next game is and we don’t know how many games there are going to be. That was the most difficult thing but after that chat, it was brilliant how we all just bought in, said we are staying here, we are getting us back up and then we will go for it next year.”

The Londoners are, for sure, going for it but not without another shock to the system along the way, that infamous March 2021 defeat at Cornish Pirates in their maiden Championship outing. “The best thing that probably happened to us was us losing the first game,” continued Daly, harking back to where it all started for Saracens in the second division.

“It was a wake-up call that we need to switch our heads on here to this league, to this team to get us back to where we belong. Everyone at Saracens had put so much effort into us and we wanted to repay them on the pitch and get us back where we belong and hopefully then competing as we are doing this year.”

For Daly, the collective reaction typified how special a club he believes Saracens is. “It’s very hard to put your finger on it but it’s literally as soon as you walk through the door it’s weird, it’s one of those things where rugby isn’t actually the first priority, it’s how you are as a person, how your family is, how are you getting on?

“After my move down (from Wasps), it was more about are you settling in well, how’s your wife, how are your family, are they okay with you being here, that type of thing and then the rugby stuff comes later. That is one thing about Saracens, everyone knows everything about you and actually cares about stuff outside of rugby.

“The rugby is obviously the most important thing but if you are not in a good headspace you are not going to be playing your best stuff and that is the one thing everyone cares about each other here, that is a massive thing going towards the culture of the team.”

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