FEATURE INTERVIEW | Ivan Van Zyl
When the Springbok scrum half joined the club last season, he knew he would face a tough battle to get into the side ahead of his Welsh rival, Davies, and the two international quality No 9s went head-to-head throughout a campaign that saw the ‘Men in Black’ reach the Premiership final before falling to Leicester Tigers at Twickenham.
Van Zyl more than played his part with 21 appearances throughout the campaign, but it was the incumbent scrum half, Davies, who got the nod for the final. Fast forward to this season, and it is Van Zyl in the driving seat after stepping in to start all eight Premiership games to help steer the club 10 points clear at the top of the table.
“I’ve been fortunate to get a lot of game time this season, and I’m thankful for that. The only way you can properly settle into a new club is by playing regularly,” said the player who was voted Lucozade Player of the Month for October.
“Aled has been struggling with injuries this season and that gave me the opportunity to get some starts under my belt and I’m feeling comfortable. When Aled comes back it will be beneficial to both of us because we’ll push each other on.
“Not everything went the way I wanted in my first season, so I knew I needed a good start this time round. I had a great pre-season, and I couldn’t have written the script better by playing almost 80 minutes in every game so far.
“The body might ache a bit the day after every game, but I’ll take that and keep on going.”
Another influential contribution to the 25-10 win over Bristol Bears at Ashton Gate merely added to Van Zyl’s standing at the club and he is loving playing with the most caped player in Saracens history, Alex Goode.
Being a part of the game in which Goodey surpassed Kris Chesney’s club record 338 appearances in the home win over Sale Sharks made him feel an even bigger part of the Saracens family.
“That was a great occasion for Alex and it was special for all of us to be a part of it. Hats off to Saracens for the way in which they honoured one of their greatest servants,” he added.
“And wasn’t it so apt that Goodey’s first touch in his record-breaking match was scoring a try. Then he goes on and wins the man of the match award.
“The conditions were difficult at Bristol last weekend, but it was another big win. The great thing about this Saracens squad is that whoever comes into the side seems to be equally committed and effective as the players who have stepped down.
“Just take our young hooker Theo Dan as an example. I’m not sure what number he is in the pecking order, but he came in and played out of his skin at Bristol. Training is at such a high standard week in, week out because everybody wants to be a part of the side at the weekend.
“Everyone is pushing and challenging everyone else in a positive way and that is bringing out the best in each and every one of us.
“What I’ve found in my short time at the club is that the more settled you are, and the more valued you feel, the greater difference you can make on the field.
“Both my wife and I are loving it here and feel very much at home. We went back to South Africa for four weeks at the end of last season, but after a fortnight we were itching to get back. This feels very much like home these days.
“We were welcomed into the Saracens family with open arms, and nothing has been too much trouble for the club in ensuring we feel settled and happy.”
The goal for everyone this season is obvious – to go one better than last season and win the Premiership title back. That is always easier said than done and Van Zyl says that despite an unbeaten start, there are still things to work on.
“We were probably a little bit inconsistent last season, but this winter we are chasing our own standards. We want to improve game by game,” he said.
“If we can keep moving forward then we will ultimately reach our goal. The fact we’ve been able to beat both Sale Sharks and Bristol in successive games without a dozen international players speaks volumes of where we are.”
The other driver for Van Zyl is that by playing regularly and well for Saracens he might just catch the eye of the South African selectors ahead of next year’s World Cup. He won the first of his six Springbok caps to date against a Wales side that had Aled Davies on the bench in a friendly in Washington DC in 2018.
Wales won that one 22-20 but Van Zyl then went on to taste victory against England in two Tests on home soil soon after – playing against six of his current Saracens teammates.
His last cap was in another defeat to Wales in Cardiff at the end of 2018, but he remains hopeful of staying on the Springbok selector’s radar.
“I’d never say no to playing for the Springboks again. The only way that will happen, though, is if I am on the top of my game here at Saracens,” he added.
“That’s all I can do and that’s all I’m focusing on.”