Saracens’ ‘work hard, play hard’ culture has been widely praised, but now feels tainted

Saracens will continue their team trips despite the arrest of Billy Vunipola in Palma

During an interview last week after his arrest following a drunken altercation in a Mallorcan bar, Saracens No 8 Billy Vunipola, who was clearly remorseful for his actions after being tasered twice by Spanish police at 4.30am, made the following comments during a lengthy conversation. apology. “I caused a huge amount of embarrassment and put the spotlight on the club when they tried to do something nice for us… I ruined it for myself and everyone else.”

These comments help to highlight how important Saracens’ social connections are to their players, aware that a negative spotlight has now shone on their mid-season trips abroad, with the positive benefits being pushed aside.

Twice a season – once during the season and once off-season – the Saracens squad went abroad on similar trips, which were seen as valuable opportunities to bond off the pitch.

To be clear, Vunipola had split from the rest of the group and was joined by another player, propagandist Marco Riccioni. Based on the account of the owner of the Epic bar in Palma, Riccioni behaved impeccably and tried to help as much as possible, albeit without success. Vunipola, who drank for the first time in months and persistently refused to put his shirt back on, was tasered twice and then arrested, drugged, released on bail, fined by a court and released with a four-month suspended prison sentence.

Marco RiccioniMarco Riccioni

Marco Riccioni, centre, tried to talk down his teammate Vunipola and stayed with him as the night took a turn for the worse – Henry Browne/Getty Images

Building a strong culture has been integral to Saracens’ rise to the top over the past twenty years, from the creation of the Wolfpack defense to the introduction of the Tiki Tonga party, around the same time as the first Saracens trip to Cape Town. all the way back in 2009, which was markedly different from how Vunipola’s night ended.

The team trained, did some community work building houses in a town and, yes, went out a few times. As the team became more successful in early 2010, the time available to make those trips decreased and they instead became mid-season events; finding weekends in the schedule, or traveling from Sunday to Monday if the team had played on Saturday.

‘You get to know them on a deeper level’

“They were more like eruptions,” as one source who took part in previous trips said Telegraph Sports, before adding that the ethos of the original idea remained the same until Cape Town. “The basic principle was that you spend time together, away from your family, your worries, just the boys together. You have a drink, it relaxes people, you become closer and more connected. You understand their motivations, what inspires them, everything that’s going on in their family life – you get to know them on a deeper level.”

Players were given conversation cards that they had to keep with them at all times; some light-hearted, some deeper, from what superhero they would be to their greatest fear. There would be group lunches with other players they didn’t know very well, spending time with younger players in the squad, as well as the club’s coaching staff.

The source adds: “When you have that increase in motivation and deeper respect for each other, that brotherhood, then you will fight even harder for that person in the most difficult moments. That’s the difference between winning and losing in the biggest moments.”

Since the trips were first introduced, Saracens players and management have been to approximately 20 locations. There’s been skiing in Verbier (without much skiing), a music festival in Chicago, 36 hours spent in Barcelona, ​​time training in Florida with the Miami Dolphins.

When England head coach Steve Borthwick was Saracens captain, he was due to attend the 2010 Heineken Cup launch in Cardiff but pulled out at the last minute to take part in what was described by Saracens at the time as an “important team meeting” . In Munich. At Oktoberfest. Saracens were fined £4,240 by the tournament organizers; money well spent, they would argue, as they won the Premier League title for the first time under Borthwick’s management the following summer.

In the ensuing fifteen years since the team’s first trip to Table Mountain, Saracens have won more trophies than any other English club, with six league titles (after reaching a further three finals) and three European Cups in the space of four years. If the trips go well, which they almost always do, they turn out to be a resounding success.

‘Mostly it’s self-control’

The source added: “Obviously there have been incidents. Of course, there have been times when people have gone too far, but mostly it’s self-control: the boys take the boys home. The golden rule we say during the trips is to take care of each other and make sure we get home well and support each other. Hence the sight of Riccioni on the bar’s CCTV footage, having done what he could and watched Vunipola’s arrest.

The club’s relationship with alcohol has historically been seen in a positive light – think of Alex Goode’s multi-day session after Saracens’ 2019 European Cup win, still in his full kit on Monday evening. It is therefore unfortunate timing, to say the least, that Vunipola’s arrest for disobedience and assault on a police officer comes a year after Saracens hooker Kapeli Pifeleti pleaded guilty to assaulting someone during a night out in Clapham, resulting in a fine from the police. courts and a formal warning from the club.

Vunipola’s arrest was handled quickly and was clearly serious – he was tasered twice by police officers – although it pales in comparison to the 2015 fire extinguisher incident in Budapest that ultimately ended the club flanker’s career , Matt Hankin. after a drinking game went too far. Hankin was wearing a metal helmet and, according to the Supreme Court’s ruling, was “hit on the head” by the fire extinguisher delivered by another player and suffered a concussion. He was wrongly cleared to return to the game earlier than planned, being diagnosed with sinusitis, before suffering another concussion and being forced to retire. Hankin then sued the teammate who caused the original concussion, Richard Barrington, the club doctor who cleared him, Ademola Adejuwon, and Saracens for £3.15 million. The case was settled out of court, with Barrington and Adejuwon paying damages.

“It was a sad story about someone’s career. That’s a black mark that doesn’t really have to do with a trip, I would say, because [the issue] was what happened when he came back,” the source added. “Yes, there are times when people fall or things like that, but generally no injuries, no problems. The boys appreciate that we are very lucky with these trips. It’s what people love to do, it’s really exciting and fun. You really feel connected.

”[Billy] was a public one, but there are certainly many more positives than negatives and players really believe in it [the team socials]. It’s very difficult to quantify, but they have a huge impact in terms of togetherness, getting to know each other better, having fun together, feeling like you’re part of the whole group. The players who are injured or not involved as much feel part of it and train harder, push the team harder and the whole group moves as one, which is so important.

After Vunipola’s actions, the team’s socials naturally feel a bit tarnished, hence the clear remorse from the number 8. It’s a feeling that will probably require many incident-free excursions. But its purpose and the resulting success Saracens have had on the pitch, despite what happened in Mallorca, should not be overlooked.

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