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'We got all the heat': Saracens recall humiliating loss at Pirates

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

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Saturday in front of a packed house at Twickenham with the Premiership title up for grabs will be quite the contrast for Saracens – and World Cup-winning tighthead Vincent Koch – given where they were and what they experienced 15 months ago. There they were at the Mennayne Field, the home of the Cornish Pirates, and the spit-and-sawdust experience was a rude awakening to the realities of life in the second tier.

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It was November 2019 when the South African front-rower and his fellow Springboks were lifting aloft the World Cup at a spick and span stadium in Yokohama in front of a massive live global TV audience. Sixteen months later, though, Koch was packing down from the start for a bruising introduction to life in the English Championship with Saracens.

The Londoners were ambushed 25-17 and the rugby world reacted with glee that they had been humbled in their maiden second-tier match following their automatic relegation from the Premiership for repeated breaches of the salary cap.

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It’s a scar that has lived strong in the mind of Koch, the prop who tossed his recollections of that day into the build-up to this Saturday’s Premiership final versus Leicester. Losing that day, he reckoned, was a huge motivation, fuelling them for the fightback that has taken the back up the divisions and left them poised just 80 minutes away from lifting the biggest trophy in English rugby three years after it was last theirs.

It was not the greatest start, it was a massive challenge for us. That brought us closer,” he recalled. “We went to the Championship starting off with quite a young group, started with players who hadn’t played much with the club but we brought them in and all the boys stepped up well and put their foot down.

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That was a challenging time for us. Mentally it was tough. Of course, we got all the heat from the media which wasn’t great but it brought us closer as a group. We knew the people on the outside weren’t saying great things about us but we had to stick together in the group and the group was stronger.

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“When you go down to the Championship it’s easy for people just to jump the ship but if you look at the players, everyone stayed and we had unbelievable players, internationals, Lions players who stayed at the club which was unheard of. It just shows that there is something special at this club and over the years it definitely left a mark on the players for them not to leave when things got tough.

“Bad things don’t pull you down, it’s something you can grow on. The bad things or the bad words said to us made us stronger, made us tougher and in the six years I have been here it has not always been positive feedback towards Saracens but that definitely played a role in where we are as a team and how tough we are towards the comments that come from the outside.”

According to Koch, this general dislike of Saracens then fed into their approach to their first season back in the Premiership, who knew they had the talent to succeed and make it through to the big day on the league’s calendar the showpiece final at Twickenham.

“Our main focus was to prove a point in the Premiership this year and we had loads of rotation this year as well. It was a goal for us. We were in the Champ but the year before (2018/19), we had an unbelievable season.

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“If you look at the past we have done really well and the team stayed together and just got better. It’s not a surprise we are there, the boys worked hard for where we are. The boys put in all the effort and we just stuck together. It is no surprise, this is what our goal was at the beginning of the year, to reach the final.”

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