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'When I first started off at Saracens it was awful, I almost kicked it like a football'

By Liam Heagney

Trending on RugbyPass

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It’s been quite an eventful 17-month trek for Elliott Obatoyinbo and Saracens from there to here, the January 2020 confirmation of their automatic relegation from the Gallagher Premiership to their upcoming two-legged Championship final which they hope will secure their safe passage back to the top flight.

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For sure, the 22-year-old has enjoyed the adventure. He had unhesitatingly put pen to paper when a contract extension was offered long before the R-word ever became the London club’s reality. He figured it made full sense to continue his education at the home of the 2019 double champions, but he never fathomed that his development would be accelerated – not stunted – by the salary cap crisis that materialised.

Having never played in the Premiership before, Obatoyinbo wound up featuring nine times in the Saracens matches that followed confirmation of their automatic relegation, five outings as a starter at wing and full-back, and he has since gone on to start six times at full-back in the shortened tier-two campaign that will end with Trailfinders providing the promotion-deciding opposition on successive Sundays.

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“I can’t complain,” said Obatoyinbo enthusiastically over the phone to RugbyPass when reflecting on his emergence as a regular Saracens first-team pick. “It was a pretty straightforward decision for me to sign. I found out before any of the relegation and all that had gone on and it was almost like a blessing in disguise because I have had more game time.

“It was a no-brainer for me, really. I’d gone through the academy and with the coaches and the players we have here, it’s perfect for my development and for the age I’m at as well. Being in the Championship has allowed me to show what I can do and now I will be looking to kick on.

“I’m glad I’ve had this run of games, It has given me a bit of confidence. Normally it was A-League with a different set of players but now I play with more internationals, which is great for my game and my development. It has put me in good stead. In the past six months, I have worked on my role as a full-back because prior to that I’d played more wing. I want to give myself the best opportunity to play both so that no matter where I’m picked I am happy. With full-back I have been mostly working on my kicking, trying to make that one of my strengths. When I first started off at Sarries it was awful.

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“I almost kicked it like a football, so I have been working on that. Occasionally I will speak to Owen (Farrell), Goodey (Alex Goode) and they help me out. It has definitely come along but I have still got a few bits to touch on. My aerial and my backfield coverage have probably been my strengths at full-back and bringing on my counter-attack as well.”

He likes tapping into the mental aspects too. “I try and get inside different people’s heads with everything really, whether it’s the mental side of the game just to see how different people deal with things or whether it is coaches or players. I have spoken to Owen Farrell quite a bit, Maro (Itoje), his career and the way he has come up is inspiring considering we are of similar background, so he is someone from Saracens I would follow in that light… I try and pick different people’s heads.”

The dominant chit-chat surrounding the novelty of Saracens lining out in the Championship was how it would allegedly be a breeze, that they would walk their way through and would definitely be back in the Premiership for the new-season start in September. It hasn’t been the anticipated procession, though.

While they have hammered some lesser-resourced sides in recent months with the myriad of international back in harness and eager to play, a swagger that culminated in them putting 73 unanswered points on Coventry in their last outing, they were given a rude Championship debut awakening when ambushed at Cornish Pirates on the first Saturday in March, a sobering introduction that served them very well in adjusting thereafter to their unfamiliar surroundings.

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“The Pirates was a good example of Championship rugby,” explained Obatoyinbo, who wore the Saracens No15 jersey that reality-check day in Cornwall. “It was a shock to us with how the refereeing is a bit different, no TMO, a lot of players are niggly and trying to get in your head. It’s a lot different to the Prem and that was a great lesson to us.

“We have some players who played in the Champ last season and they have also been of great help to all of us because you know for a lot of the teams it was their biggest game ever or the biggest of their season. Just being aware they were going to come with full force and just knowing we have to be prepared for what they bring, that Pirates game was a good lesson.

“We wanted to go through the whole season unbeaten, that was our plan so it came as a bit of a shock. But our coach Mark spoke to us pretty well, just focusing on the next thing and knowing we are going to come up against more of that. Our reaction since then has been perfect.”

Now, though, comes the ultimate tier-two examination. “Ealing have been great this season. We have to watch and respect how they play, but we are building towards those two finals and if we stick to our game we will be fine and will get back into the Prem.”

The Obatoyinbo confidence in becoming a Saracens regular is in contrast to his previous boy to man gallivanting, a 2018 stint with Wellington’s Mitre Cup juniors followed by further formative loan stints at Ampthill and London Scottish. “That year, year-and-a-half, until now that was my biggest learning where I was being moved about a bit, experiencing different things.

“In New Zealand that was a completely different experience for me. Having to play in England there is a lot of kicking, but when I went there I remember kicking and they were why are you kicking the ball? Just running it from deep and just the culture of how they mix it up and then coming back here after that experience, I had to come back and fit back into the English style of play.

“Going to New Zealand there was me and Andy Christie, my teammate, just that experience, going away for the first time, I’d been at Harrow and was set in my ways it was a great experiencing something different coming straight out of school and then coming back and playing at Scottish, Ampthill, being surrounded by those kinds of people, it definitely helped me move out of that young boy stage into a man.

“Having played in all these places has given me a perspective of different styles of rugby and I feel like it made my knowledge of the game a bit better. But those were probably the most difficult times because I wasn’t staying in one place. It was good for my learning but sometimes I got a bit frustrated being moved about but in the long run, it really developed my game.”

Intriguingly, the overseas route is a path that Harrison, Obatoyinbo’s soon-to-be 20-year-old brother, embraced on a more permanent basis by heading to France last year. “He wasn’t able to get a contract through the academy here for whatever reason, but he did well at Ealing and was happy to go to France on his own. It was a big step for him but there are always different ways to get your career up and running.

“We speak almost every day. My family, we are very tight so we speak quite often. He has been doing well. He got off to a good start at Toulon and then he had a meniscus tear so that set him back a bit but he is loving his time there. It’s sunny the whole time so he is not really complaining. He is really enjoying it. His espoirs season is finished but he is going to remain with the first team for the remainder of the season.”

Stylish is how you would now describe Obatoyinbo, playing at a Saracens first-team weight that suits a playing style that incorporates distinctive use of a scrum cap, an accessory uncommon for backs. “With my hair on muddy pitches, I don’t want to get any mud in it so it just keeps it all tidy but I have been wearing it since I was a young boy so I probably feel almost naked without it. I have been wearing that for ages so there hasn’t been a game when I haven’t worn my scrum cap so it’s partly my hair and also just feeling a bit safe with it,” he said about the cap.

As for his fighting weight, the Saracens website erroneously suggests Obatoyinbo is a mere 83kgs. “I’m not that anymore,” he assured, surprised. “I’m 92, 93 now. That must be an academy stat. When I left school I came out 80 and within the first six months, I’d gone up to 90. It was a bit of both, the body maturing and gym. With most clubs when you first join, they try and get you gyming just to get you used to the physical part of men’s rugby and the level we play at, and part of it is just natural growth.

“I’ve found a steady weight that I’m happy to be at. Normally they are not really fussed about what exact weight you are, it’s just whether the way you are you can be physical enough and take tackles and all that. Yeah, I was probably about 91 up to 95 and now I’m 93 steady,” confirmed Obatoyinbo, who made a Premiership Cup debut at Saracens in October 2020.

The former England age-grade international is a fascinating character in other ways. He’s a scratch golfer; a Tiger Woods fan who considered going pro until rugby took the firmer grip, he’s an artist with a curiosity in African styles reflective of his Nigerian heritage, while he is also a young man vocal about race in the last year.

First, the golf, an interest that waned at Harrow where rugby dominated. “The main sport there was rugby and I found myself enjoying it more the older I got. I got pushed towards rugby, we trained rugby almost every day and then to be a professional golfer you have to be very committed, training every day for hours. It was just the way things went. I just backed my decision and I’m happy with how I have done so far. 

“I still try and get a round in once a week at least. Some of the boys play at Harpenden. My dad was a member of Stoke Park, so I played there growing up but in the last year, I have joined Harpenden which is the local course to where we train at St Albans.

“I think about rugby enough as it is, so it’s good to play a different sport. Golf doesn’t take up too much energy so on my days off I can go off and it doesn’t affect my training or anything like that. Golf is good in that sense and art takes my mind away from a few things. It is important to get that balance because thinking about rugby the whole time would be detrimental to me.

“In Kenya, there is a small tour they play there. My parents are now based in Kenya so whenever I go and see them I play quite a bit of golf. I have been thinking of going there and playing a tournament or two just to see where I am at in terms of competitive level because I haven’t really competed since I was about 16. It would something for fun.

“I’d say the biggest thing is just keeping a balanced head whether you do something good or bad,” he continued when asked if he found any crossover between the sports. “What I found was when I was younger if I did something bad it affected me for about three holes and it’s the same thing in rugby where I can’t be letting one thing affect me, I need to move on to the next job. 

“That is the biggest thing I have learned from golf, just being able to keep a balanced head whether you do something good or bad. That is the biggest similarity I have found. Apart from that golf is something I like to go away and do. I was thinking of going pro when I was young but it’s now just one of my hobbies.

“Growing up me and my brother got moved around quite a lot with my mum’s job but I felt like I had a very good understanding of both my cultures, the English on my mum’s side and Nigerian on my dad’s side. I was very much aware of who I was aware growing up and I felt like I had a good balance and I’m very aware of both cultures. With rugby it is hard to have the time to go to Nigeria but I do art and my art is based on African art and my main influences are African artists. That is something I try and keep in touch with.”

It was June last year when Obatoyinbo also powerfully narrated words written by his teammate Christie to highlight the Saracens support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Where does he feel that campaign is now a year later? “It’s good that actions have now taken place.

“There was something in the news recently where a woman was racist online and she was actually arrested. Stuff like that needs to keep happening. They are still improvements that need to happen, we are still a long way away. There is still a lot of online abuse.

“Almost every week there is still a video going around that I’m seeing and someone is being racial abused. In football you see it a lot more, luckily rugby isn’t as bad. I have never experienced racism in rugby whereas in football it is very clear that that still goes on. There is a lot to do but we are moving in the right direction.”

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'When I first started off at Saracens it was awful, I almost kicked it like a football'

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