Ivan van Zyl Exclusive: 'We know that when we are at our best, we will be devastating'

Ivan van Zyl has started all six games of Saracens' Gallagher Premiership campaign so far
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Saracens scrum-half Ivan van Zyl is certainly showing the war wounds from his team’s last-gasp 22-20 victory over Exeter Chiefs at Sandy Park.

Thanks to the boot of Alex Goode with the clock in the red, the South African celebrated with the rest of his teammates as they continued their unbeaten start to the season. Just several days on from those exploits, Van Zyl sits before me at Woollams Fields with his right brow and cheekbone stitched up.

It was a combative game to say the least, with the lead changing hands, and Mark McCall’s side also had to contend with yellow cards to Owen Farrell and Mako Vunipola. Extending their winning streak to six on the trot, Van Zyl has started every game for his team so far and has established himself as one of the form scrum-halves in the Gallagher Premiership.

This sequence of results has not only seen the team turn over the Chiefs, but overcome incumbent Premiership champions Leicester Tigers, and the former Bulls half-back was extremely pleased with last weekend.

“It was unbelievable,” Van Zyl said. “Both teams wanted it desperately. You could see that in the way the game was going, so it was difficult to describe. It is one of those you remember for a very long time. It was probably one of my most special victories since joining.

“We were sort of in control in the middle stage, or we started to get a little bit more control and obviously they came back with scoring that try [Jacques Vermeulen] and that penalty [Henry Slade] to take the lead. It sort of felt like we were letting it slip with three minutes left.

“That rollercoaster of emotion, going from ‘boys we are in control’ to ‘it is slipping away’ to ‘we have got another chance to win this’, that’s what makes sport, sport. Right up there with one of the most enjoyable victories I have ever had.”

Sitting on top of the table, Saracens have certainly put their Premiership final loss to Leicester behind them in the early part of this season. Much like last term when they returned to the top-flight following their stint in the Championship, McCall’s team are showing every bit of the attitude that saw the club become a dominant force both domestically and on the continent.

Still on the hunt for a first piece of silverware since their promotion back to the Premiership, the team are certainly going about things the right way with their emphatic form.

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Making their way to Hendon this weekend are Sale Sharks. Van Zyl and his teammates will have their work cut out as Alex Sanderson’s team are just five points adrift of the North Londoners after having had their own six-game winning streak brought to an end by Harlequins last Sunday.

“We were disappointed with last season,” Van Zyl said. “I think more even in the way we played in that final probably. We felt we weren’t at our best. Leicester were brilliant the whole season and nobody is taking that away. We just felt after the game we could of done more. We could have been better.

“I think that speaks volumes of what Saracens is as a club, and what they have built over the last 10 or 15 years. It is a new season, and we are chasing our standards. It is not going to be different, whether we won or lost. We were going to come back this season and it starts all over again.

“We are chasing our standards again. I think that is one thing that has been so impressive for this team and the culture that Mark and everyone have built. We want to get better every day, no matter who we are playing against.

“We are chasing certain standards that as a team we believe we should be functioning at. Six out of six is brilliant for us, but this weekend against Sale is going to be a different challenge as well.”

Both Sale and Sarries will be without a number of their headline players this weekend with the Autumn Nations Series just over a week away. Each club has been hit heavily by international call-ups, Saracens having had eight brought into the England camp alone, while Sharks have had five players called upon by Eddie Jones.

Fly-half Owen Farrell has been unable to join up with his international teammates as a result of a concussion suffered against Exeter and is currently under return to play guidelines, while Sale’s Tom Roebuck was taken to Jersey alongside Adam Radwan [Newcastle Falcons] and Henry Slade [Exeter Chiefs] due to other injuries in the squad.

It is at this time of year that strength in depth will be severely tested. One of the big drawbacks to such success on the field is that first-string players will be away for longer periods during international windows, making each point available in club competition all the more important.

Van Zyl scored a try in Saracens' 51-18 win over Premiership champions Leicester Tigers
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“Every coach will want to put his best team out every single week,” Van Zyl said. "When you have those boys, you need to make sure you get every point you can. On the other hand, other boys are getting the opportunity to put up their hand up again and show what they can do which is exciting for them.

“It is part of the competition and once again, if you can make sure you continue on the good form you have now as a team, it gives your squad even more momentum and more confidence if you perform well in the time the internationals are gone.

“It is a different challenge, but something that can really be beneficial for the whole squad when the boys who haven’t played as much as they would have wanted to are getting a chance to play more. If they are performing, it just boosts the morale of everyone.”

Such has been Van Zyl’s form this season, it would have almost been remiss not to ask the 27-year-old about his own international ambitions. While playing for the Blue Bulls in 2018, the scrum-half won six caps for his country, but in the four years since making his bow, he hasn’t added to his collection of Test honours.

This is in no short part down to the immense depth in Jacques Nienaber’s squad, where Faf de Klerk, Cobus Reinach, Herschel Jantjies and Jaden Hendrikse are all jostling for a place in the matchday 23.

Upon the announcement of his signing for Saracens, there was much talk about the playmaker’s international future. Former Springbok Werner Swanepoel even compared Van Zyl to ex-Sale man Faf de Klerk, who was able to establish himself as the first-choice scrum-half in the green jersey and promptly guided his side to a Rugby World Cup title.

“I think it will always be an ambition,” Van Zyl said. “I am only 27, so if I think back on it, I have been really fortunate to get six Springbok caps. Back then, I was 22, 23 and when I think where my game is now, the way I understand the game, the way I have developed, I wish back then I was with the Boks playing the way I am now.

“We all want to represent our country, but the thing is that the Springboks have real good nines currently. The only thing I can do is keep on performing and at this stage, that has been going well.

“If I can keep on going well and performing well, you never know what happens and if that opportunity will come up again. For now, I think my main focus is to really be all in here at Sarries. If I am playing well, the team is playing well, then national selectors and coaches can have a look at you and say ‘maybe we will give him another shot’.

“For now, my main focus is to really be all in at Sarries. If that opportunity comes, it will be amazing. That’s always the dream and I have been privileged to have been able to do that six times and hopefully I’ll get the opportunity in the future to do that again.”

Along with the autumn internationals being away, Saracens are stepping into a tricky period where after Sale they will be coming up against top-four challengers Bristol Bears and Northampton Saints.

Van Zyl believes that at their best, he and his Saracens teammates can be 'devastating'
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It will be a challenging time at scrum-half for Saracens, who haven’t seen Aled Davies feature in a matchday 23 since the second round of Premiership action, while Ruben de Haas is set to be on USA duty in the coming weeks. Van Zyl will no doubt have to shoulder more responsibility but in arguably the form of his career, the 27-year-old will be relishing every moment.

Just several weeks into his time with the club, Van Zyl spoke about how much he was loving his life in England. It is an enthusiasm still blatantly clear when speaking to the South African, who says that after only three weeks of his five-week holiday in his home country, he was keen to get back to these shores to prepare for the new season.

Challenged positionally on a weekly basis both by his own teammates and his opposition, it has allowed Van Zyl to grow into one of the best scrum-halves in the Premiership and with Saracens, he is sure to be vying for silverware this term.

“I think we are pretty set on what we want to achieve as a club, and everyone is driven for that,” he said. “Every single day when we come in, players and coaches are driven to be the best we can be.

“We know that when we are at our best, we will be devastating. For us, it is really a thing of chasing those standards and chasing excellence amongst ourselves and, as a team, be consistent.

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“That is one thing we really want to get right this season. Looking at last season, we felt we were really inconsistent at stages. We were sort of up and down in the season. We had a good win, a bad performance.

"Having a start with six out of six, not everything has gone perfectly. There is obviously two games that came down to the last kick, there is a lot of stuff that happened, but we managed to get the wins.

“We are taking a step in the right direction. I think for us, it is all about improving every game and taking a step even if it is a small step. If we keep on improving, we will be there when it comes to finals and being in the big games, which we want to be a part of.”