Barring the craziest result in the history of the sport, Saracens will make their successful return to the Premiership for the upcoming 2021/22 season.
Following a 60-0 demolition win in the first leg of their Championship play-off final against Ealing, the biggest surprise would be if they did not add significant loss to that aggregate scoreline.
They had a successful internal return of their own midway through this campaign in the shape of the unmistakable Alex Goode, the modern-day club legend who spent the early part of the season on loan in Japan before returning last month for the final promotion push.
With over 300 games played for the club he is closing in on their all-time appearance record and is clearly loving life back in NW4, fitting back in seamlessly.
“I’ve really enjoyed being back, this is a club that I love I’ve spent a lot of time here and coming back into it I was like a schoolkid, a bit nervous on that first day and getting back in, everyone welcomed me back in being so warm with it and genuinely really happy to see me which was a really nice feeling and made me feel back at home.” Goode said.
“Pretty much straight after coming out of quarantine I was back into training, I wanted to be playing and then that week I was on the bench against Ampthill, it was awesome to be back with the boys, to be training hard in a place that I know so well, for a club I’ve been part of for so long.
“I was still in contact and speaking to the boys whilst away, the coaches checked in on me so in that sense it was pretty easy. Obviously in the world we live in these days you can pick it up pretty quick, the club were good and I got to get the streams of the games when they were at a reasonable time in Japan, others I picked up on the highlights packages as they were middle of the night but it was great to keep in touch and up to date which helped coming back.”
It would be an understatement to say that the club had seen some changes between Alex’s return appearance and his last Sarries game prior to that, the Champions Cup Semi-Final at Racing back in September, with plenty of player turnover as well as coaching departures and of course a drop in division.
Whilst the eye watering list of departures could have been brought together to make a world class XV in itself, this season has given an opportunity to a number of Saracens younger contingent who have dovetailed superbly with the more established names.
“A lot of players have stepped up, the likes of Elliot (Obatoyinbo), Andy (Christie), Sean (Reffell), KP (Kapeli Pifeleti), there was always a big opportunity, those guys embraced and that’s all you could ask is ultimately you want players who are desperate to be out there, show what it means to be a Saracens player,” Goode said.
“It’s making it hard now on players who have previously had the shirt, people coming back from loan moves like myself, Nick Tompkins, next year as well Ben Earl, Nick Isiekwe, Max Malins, Alex Lozowski they will have to step up because the players who have been here have played so well and I think that’s a really good environment, you talk about next cab on the rank and he’s got to step up and perform and those guys have done that which is great for strength in depth.”
As the saying goes though, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
They still possess one of the strongest core playing groups in club rugby, they are as ruthless as ever and at the heart of it are the same old Sarries.
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“People have gone, players have left and that’s obviously a shame to lose them, but at the fabric of the club it’s still there, still the same place and we’re still trying to achieve the same things,” Goode said.
“Ultimately, it’s a very competitive group who want to win, it hurt what happened with the salary cap it’s not what players wanted at all but that’s the hand we’ve been dealt and we’ve got to crack on, we’ve put our best foot forward embraced the Championship and the challenges of day to day life during covid to try and do our best and get back up to the Premiership.
“There are challenges along the way so we’ve got to come together as a group like we always have with that togetherness and fight through those, we’ve done that so far and there hasn’t been any complaining from the boys who’ve just dug in and cracked on.”
They were of course red-hot favourites for promotion this season, given their pedigree and the star power remaining in their squad, but still big performances were required in order to reclaim their place at the top table.
That goal is now as good as achieved thanks to that monumental buffer built up against a game but outmuscled Ealing side, whilst there was never much danger of complacency, despite it being a different type of final than the ones the clubs has been accustomed to, the way Saracens went about their business shows that they will soon be fighting for top honours once more.
“We come for the big games, Premiership final, Championship final, Champions Cup final there’s still huge pressure there and you’ve got to deal with that, embrace it and enjoy it, for us it’s the possible livelihood of the club and people’s jobs, if we don’t perform well enough and are in the Championship again, can we survive?” Goode said.
“That’s the huge pressure and we don’t want to play in the Championship again, no disrespect to it but we’re top players who want to be in the Premiership.
“It’s the pressure we put on ourselves to put in a performance that we’re proud of, that’s the Saracens way, we know what we’ve got to do, we’ve been in these big occasions before, we know how to prepare for them, how to best go about our business, we expect a lot from each other and push standards in the week to get to the right level.
“I think what we’ve learnt over the years is that when it comes to these big games and this is one because it matters so much, then it’s about enjoying the week, it’s not about fearing it or worrying about it.”
As well as a foray into the Championship, this last year also brought about another rugby first for Alex, a stint away from Saracens to play for NEC Green Rockets in Japan.
One of several Sarries players to head out on loan to various clubs he pitched up just in time for the height of the pandemic to play in the Top League up until his club’s playoff elimination back in April.
Japan is becoming more and more a popular quick stop destination for the world’s top players, and whilst never previously on the radar, it all aligned, or perhaps misaligned, for Goode to join that list.
“I’d never looked at it before and it wasn’t something that was on my agenda, I’d always thought maybe France in my career, but it just seemed with Covid that French clubs were struggling as well, I had to get on loan somewhere that was pretty clear and the Japanese offer came in so I thought why not try something completely different,” Goode said.
“When I signed it I was thinking Covid might be something of the past but unfortunately when I went out there it became clear I wasn’t going to get any visitors and they weren’t letting anyone into the country and so I was away from my girlfriend for six to seven months which was really brutally tough.
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“As much as they were not letting people into the country and very strict on that, in the country it was pretty relaxed, I got to the north island and Sapporo, down South to Osaka and Kyoto, the mountains, I managed to really see a lot of it, spent a lot of time in Tokyo and it was fantastic so in that regard the experience was eye opening and I got a real flavour of it and met some wonderful people who really helped me in a period of time when it could have been quite lonely.
“I met up with George (Kruis), and then I met up with Jesse Kriel a few times at Canon and I saw Freddie (Burns) when we played, meeting other players was pretty tough with club rules but I met some great people anyway.”
Anyone who has watched or read about the Japanese Top League can attest to its interesting nature.
There are a lot of nuances to it on and off the field which create great intrigue, be it the speed of the game, the high scoring low defending nature, rubber mats in the in-goal areas, often questionable refereeing, or the mixture of world class internationals and Japanese office workers which make up a squad.
It is of great intrigue to both spectator and clearly player, sporting a stupendous blonde goatee, Alex went about his business at 10 for the Green Rockets, up until his journey ended and he returned to more familiar shores.
“It’s a bit like the premiership of football, there’s a top six who are above the rest really and are really professional throughout their organisation and just very organised, very good, structured well and everything’s there to make them the best they can possibly be, then I think the other clubs are sort of trying to catch up,” Goode said.
“Those top five or six would give the lower premiership clubs a run for their money, then the bottom six clubs would probably struggle in the championship.
“It was a fun old place, standards were better than I thought, fans were incredible where they could come out, their support in wind, rain and snow was great, the stadiums were brilliant and, but there were a couple of things that were slightly different, like the rubber mats, some of the referees assume that the big companies like Suntory and Panasonic get the rub of the green at breakdown all the time which is frustrating but that’s how life is sometimes.
“Out there it was good to be a 10, it was important for me to be organising the team as much as possible, influence as much as I could and certainly in attack we did well, we scored I think four tries on average, but we unfortunately let in about 12 so that catches up with you.
“The goatee started to get ginger because my roots were coming through, but I actually enjoyed it I must say, I had some nice compliments from people, some not so nice comments from some people.
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“It was something a bit different, as was the whole trip, I committed to it and it was fun.”
Back to the here and now as Saracens gear up for one last Championship outing before a return to the Premiership and indeed to Europe.
They have served their punishment, navigated this difficult period and can again begin to look forward.
Players will return for next season, others will move on, having signed a new deal last year which takes him up to at least 2023, Alex Goode will certainly be a part of the next stage of their journey, he is Mr. Saracens after all.
“It’s easy to say we’re not looking ahead of this final, naturally you are, whether it’s this year next year or whatever we want to be back in the Premiership and we want to be a force to be reckoned with and we want to prove people wrong about why we were successful and it’s as simple as that,” Goode said.
“I want to be winning again with this group of players, who so many I’ve played so many games with, who I love and that’s important to me, it means we’ve got to win this playoff which is so important and then we’ve got to take from there and build again to showcase that in the years to come.”