It’s been said that a year is a long time in rugby. Some years, however, seem to hurtle along at breakneck speed. Take the journey of Theo Dan as a case in point. Twelve months ago he was just breaking through to the Saracens first team having previously spent time on loan with Ampthill in the second tier of English rugby. “It wasn’t that long ago I was fifth choice hooker at Sarries and barely thinking about Test rugby,” he says. “I still can’t believe how quickly things have changed.”
While most 22-year-olds are contemplating taking their first steps in the real world, Dan is now a serious threat to Jamie George’s hold on the N0 2 jersey for both club and country. Already with seven Test caps under his belt, Dan, described by the BBC’s Chris Jones as the “future of English rugby”, has the potential to become a mainstay at the highest level for a generation.
“I haven’t had time to process it yet,” he explains ahead of Saracens’ Champions Cup match away to the Bulls in Pretoria. “It’s been weird. Whenever someone tells me how well I’m doing I still can’t quite take it in. I don’t think it will sink in for a while.”
Across virtually every metric that matters he has made a more impactful start to his senior career than any other English hooker who has played in the position since January 2022. When comparing his first 30 senior appearances for Saracens and England, and contrasting the first 30 matches of Luke Cowan-Dickie, Jamie George, Jamie Blamire, Nic Dolly and Jack Willis. Dan blows them all away.
He averages at least two more carries per game than anyone else and makes twice as many metres (44.8) than his closest competitor. He tops the charts on line-breaks, defenders beaten, carry dominance percentage, gainline success, tackle evasion and dominant tackles per game. This is perhaps unsurprising considering he started out as a centre with designs on becoming the next Brad Barritt, but he also leads the way with line-out throw success at 90 per cent. It’s no wonder he’s receiving universal praise. Not that he’s getting carried away by the hype.
“What people write about me, I try to distance myself as much as possible,” he explains. “People can write some really complimentary things, and they have done, but when you start listening to things when they’re good, you’ll start to listen to things when they’re not going so well.
“You can get trapped into a spiral. The way you think about yourself can be shaped by the things that other people write and I don’t want that for myself. My friends and family read everything. At times it’s hard to distance yourself when you’re getting messages on group chats. But I’ve tried my best. I’ve spoken to players in the camp and they’ve told me it’s easy to fall into the trap. It can lead you down some pretty dark roads when you’re constantly checking what others are saying.”
Dan delivers his answers with a maturity and consideration that belies his age. Our conversation naturally shifts to more complex subjects like the abuse directed at referees, the state of the English game after three historic clubs went to the wall last season
He delivers his answers with a maturity and consideration that belies his age. Our conversation naturally shifts to more complex subjects like the abuse directed at referees, the state of the English game after three historic clubs went to the wall last season, as well as Owen Farrell’s decision to take a break from international rugby.
But before he can attempt to formulate a coherent answer on these matters, something even rugby veterans have struggled to do, Saracens’ media manager intervenes: “We’d prefer he doesn’t go there at this stage of his career.”
Ordinarily this would be construed as unnecessary gate-keeping. Except in this case it is the right call. Given all that’s gone wrong in rugby of late, shielding a burgeoning talent from the dirt and din makes sense.
“I’m still getting used to talking to the press,” Dan admits after the subject swiftly changes. “I still feel caught up in trying not to say the wrong thing. Or rather, I’m trying to do the right thing. But I’m getting used to it. I’m learning on the job.”
He’ll get plenty of practice soon enough. His barnstorming runs and tenacity around the breakdown means he’s one of the hottest young prospects anywhere in the world. Though even at such a tender age, he appreciates that his fortunes can shift with the wind.
The fickleness of his sport was made apparent during England’s third-place play-off victory over Argentina at this year’s World Cup. Defending on his own line, a weak tackle allowed Santiago Carreras to score a try shortly after the half-time break. He instantly made up for his error when he charged down Carreras’ kick from the restart to score a try of his own.
“I’ve watched that highlight a few times since,” he confesses. “That moment was great, but I was more grateful than anything because just the moment before I made a mess of things. I know you can’t take anything for granted.”
There were times where I thought it might not happen. Two or three years ago I had a really bad knee injury and I was out for 15 months. You think, ‘fucking hell, it probably won’t happen’. But you just push through.
Dan believes that his level head comes from his parents. Octavian, his father, and his mother Diana, had both fled their homes in Romania after the collapse of the Soviet Union. And though his Romanian roots run deep, Dan says it was always his dream to wear the red rose of England.
“There wasn’t a day that went by where I didn’t think about exactly that,” he says. “There were times where I thought it might not happen. Two or three years ago I had a really bad knee injury and I was out for 15 months. You think, ‘fucking hell, it probably won’t happen’. But you just push through.
“I think that’s why I’ve been able to move so quickly at such a young age. I was just desperate to make it happen. In one season my life has changed and I could have never predicted it would have happened so quickly. I had this vision that I’d be playing in the Premiership for maybe a few years before any of this would happen. I think because it’s been so surprising it’s forced me to take each day as it comes. I just haven’t had time to get ahead of myself.”
He leaves the sentiment to his mum who has collected copies of every article written about her son. When the Telegraph produced a deep dive on his nascent career back in May, she had dozens of newspapers couriered to relatives in Romania.
“I’m not just representing myself, I’m representing my country, my family,” he adds. “There is obviously a heightened responsibility I feel. But I’ve always tried to live my life in the best way possible. So for me having played for England hasn’t changed the way I act or speak. I’ve not paid too much thought to it.
I’ve played in a Premiership final, a World Cup and I’m looking forward to having a good run in Europe [in the Champions Cup]. Every week feels new. Who knows where I’ll be this time next year.
“I’m just constantly looking at what comes next. We finished the World Cup on the Friday, I was back with Sarries on the Monday and playing a match on the weekend. It’s been non-stop since then and now I’m in sunny South Africa for the first time, eating steaks – oh my word, the steaks – and I’m loving life.
“I’ve played in a Premiership final, a World Cup and I’m looking forward to having a good run in Europe [in the Champions Cup]. Every week feels new. It helps that I haven’t had a moment to rest on my laurels. Who knows where I’ll be this time next year.”