Holidays and conversation cards: How Saracens forge team spirit
Written by Simon Austin — November 2, 2017
SARACENS chairman Nigel Wray says caring about players and taking a long-term view has turned his team from expensive flops into the best side in Europe.
For a decade after Wray took over in 1995, Saracens were known more for big-name coaches and players than for success on the field.
Now they are the pre-eminent side in both England and Europe, having won the Premiership in 2011, 2015 and 2016, and the European Champions Cup in 2016 and 2017.
They are favourites to win both again this season and are already top of the table in England after seven games.
Wray explained how the turnaround had come about in a fascinating interview in the Financial Times. “Brendan Venter [the club’s Director of Rugby in 2009 and 2010] convinced me we needed to build a team that wanted to stay together,” he said.
“No-one cared deeply about the club [before]. Businesses generally don’t understand ‘team’ at all - and for years, I didn’t either. So this has been one of the greatest learning lessons of my life.
“Today, in business or in rugby, I have no interest in anything short term. I just want to work with people who want to build something. That should be the point with companies, too.
“A trophy isn’t what it is about. It is a good memory but you only get them as a result of the other things that matter more.
“What matters more is understanding what created that success, and sticking to it when you aren’t successful - taking the long view, having continuity, caring about people.”
Mark McCall, who succeeded Venter as Director of Rugby and is still at the helm, has overseen the club’s dominance of English and European rugby over the last few seasons.
He said: “Now the focus is continuity. We try to keep a group together as long as we can. We say to our players: we are going to care for you and your family in all kinds of ways.
“The academy players train and eat with the first team. Induction starts with senior players talking about their experience and expectations.”
This openness and togetherness extends to ‘conversation cards’, as psychologist David Jones explained.
“We may discuss Descartes, we may discuss themes like envy and anger,” he said. “We have conversation cards with open-ended questions: who was your hero growing up? What’s the best piece of advice you were ever given?"
And twice a season the squad go on holiday together, with the players themselves deciding the destination. Past trips have included Miami, Budapest and Abu Dhabi.
“The beauty of a Saracens trip is that it isn’t about rugby,” said captain Brad Barritt. “This year we went to a ski resort. It’s a gamble, taking guys away for three days right before a match. But this is a long-term view. You just feel the group gets closer.”