Saracens - Class of 2008: A look back at Sarries famed Academy group

May 05, 2017

Class of 2008: A look back at Sarries famed Academy group

Today Saracens announced the return of Mike Hynard to the Club as Academy Manager.

Hynard previously spent 13-years at Saracens and played a key role in the transformation of the north Londoners now famed Academy system. On his watch, Sarries produced a plethora of quality Aviva Premiership players with the likes of Alex Goode, Andy Saull, Adam Powell and future Academy Manager Don Barrell having all come through the ranks at the Club.

In 2008, there was a special group of young men who were coming through the ranks at Saracens under Hynard’s watchful eye. We take a closer look at the Class of 2008, will three members of that group touring New Zealand this summer with the British and Irish Lions.

“When we started out here at Saracens there were nine players with less than 50 caps between them, now we have a core group of players who have been at the club for a prolonged period since that change. These players have played alongside each other consistently for some time, and in the case of George, Jackson, Jamie, Owen and Will, since they began their careers.  So, when we talk about togetherness, unity, or what makes a team, it is that mass of experience that counts.” – Saracens director of rugby Mark McCall on the Class of 2008.

In 2008, Saracens reached the then Heineken Cup semi-final where they were beaten by eventual winners Munster. A spine of that team were players who were brought into the club: the likes of Hugh Vyvyan (Newcastle Falcons), Cobus Visage (Stormers), Neil de Kock (Stormers), Glen Jackson (Waikato Chiefs), Paul Gustard (London Irish), Fabio Ongaro (Treviso), Census Johnston (Biarritz & Taranaki) and Fijian flyer Kameli Ratuvou had performed admirably alongside club legend Richard Hill, squad stalwarts such as Richard Haughton and Kevin Sorrell and under the stewardship of Australian coaching guru, Alan Gaffney. Yet changes to Saracens were fast approaching.

In 2009, when the winds of change howled through the club with coaching changes, player departures and board level manoeuvrings dominating the rugby news cycle the Saracens academy had a special group of youngsters who were beginning their journey to become the spine of the club’s all-conquering side currently in situ at Allianz Park.

Now household names, Owen Farrell, Jamie George, Will Fraser, George Kruis and Jackson Wray were all part of the academy group that academy manager Mike Hynard would help mould into the players they are today with the club’s commitment to nurturing their own under Brendan Venter and Mark McCall a key part of the new philosophy that still dominates thinking today.

“He played a huge role in our development,” said Saracens’ England hooker Jamie George about Hynard's infulence as an Academy Manager. “Personally, Mike (Hynard) has been one of my biggest influences on my career and I know that all the other guys from that group would say something similar. I think great that he’s back at the club.”

One man who has seen the progression these players is Saracens’ Strength and Conditioning coach Andy Edwards, who at the beginning of the 2008 season was beginning his own journey within the Saracens backroom staff as budding strength and conditioning coach.

Edwards, who was a former Saracens Academy player himself before a series of injuries unfortunately curtailed a promising career, has gone on to work for England Saxons during his time with the Club as a Strength and Conditioning coach and believes the close-knit nature of the 2008 graduates has been a key to their early success as players.

“They were a hell of lot quieter back then than they are now”, said Edwards jokingly about the 2008 Academy graduates. “They always had this ability to pull themselves together as a group, which ended up helping them out so well. We created both as players and as staff this little bubble which everyone involved bought into.

“If you can be mates with who you are working with then they are obvious benefits.  You want to work harder to help each other and that’s what happened, they became a really tight-knit bunch and have gone to become the best of mates. If one thing happened to one player within the Academy group then they all went through it. They created memories and experiences that they’ll look back on together, not just as rugby players and work colleagues, but as friends.

“For me, I’ve always said working with those guys was and still is a privilege. To see how they have become leaders within the Club, as well as exceptional rugby players and athletes, makes you think that the job is 100% worth it. On a personal note, you want to do as much as you can to help these guys reach the highest level.

Edwards added; “You see on a day-to-day basis how important the Club means to them, and how they want to protect their environment they’ve grown up with. So, to see these guys play such a vital role within the Club is very pleasing and great news for Saracens on the whole".

Since Hynard’s departure in 2012, the Saracens academy has continued to grow under the fantastic work of former player, and academy graduate Don Barrell. Duncan Taylor (Bedford Blues), Ben Spencer (Cambridge RFC) and Mako Vunipola (Bristol) were all drafted into the academy set-up and have all gone on to establish themselves as key members of the Saracens squad - in Vunipola’s case, one of the best front row forwards in the world. On Barrell’s watch the club has produced arguably one of world rugby’s finest young players in Maro Itoje and as recent as March 2017 in a breakdown of England, England U20, England U18 representation over the 6 Nations the club provided 15 players all together (the most of any Premiership Club).

On his return to Sarries, Hynard said: “I’m very excited to be returning to a club that is so close to my heart and rekindling old friendships with the senior coaching and playing staff. I’m really looking forward to working with some exciting young players, talented young coaches and performance staff that drive the Saracens Academy with their energy and enthusiasm.”

Exciting times for Saracens talent production line.

2008 Saracens Academy graduates with over a century of appearances:

Owen Farrell - 150 appearances

Jamie George - 170 appearances

George Kruis - 134 appearances

Jackson Wray - 171 appearances

Where are they now?

Top Row from left to right:

Jamie George - Key member of the Saracens and England squad. Will head to New Zealand with the British and Irish Lions this summer.

Owen Farrell – Indispensable for England, toured Australia with the British & Irish Lions in 2013 and will be heading to New Zealand later this year with the 2017 squad. Has developed into one of the world’s leading No.10s.

James Short - A powerful winger etched his name into Saracens folklore scoring a try in the 2011 Premiership final. Now excelling at Exeter Chiefs after spells at Wasps and London Irish.

Harry Spencer - Nicknamed 'Tree' during his time in the Academy, Spencer has played for Plymouth Albion and French sided Tarbes and Chalon. The second-rower was a member of the Newcastle Falcons squad before moving back to France to play in the lower divisions.

Henry Staff - Staff left Saracens in 2012 signing for Championship side Bedford Blues.

Will Fraser - Will has developed into one of England's finest back-rowers during his time with the Club but has had to battle back from a number of serious injuries. Has represented England Saxons and has trained alongside the Senior England squad.

Sam Stanley - The diminutive Stanley's progression was cruelly interrupted by two serious knee injuries during his time with the club.

Bottom row from left to right:

Alex Brown - Was a key squad member for Rob Baxter's Exeter Chiefs side that established itself in the Aviva Premiership

Luke Baldwin - The quicksilver scrum-half has played for Bedford Blues and is part of the Worcester Warriors squad.

Jake Sharp - A member of Saracens' JP Morgan 7s winning side in 2010, Sharp since moved to Bedford where the talented fly-half has played a key role at Goldington Road.

George Kruis - Has become a vital part of the Saracens and England engine room. Another Academy graduate who will be touring with the Lions this summer.

Jackson Wray - The powerful and explosive back-rower played a key role in Saracens’ recent successes. His performance against Toulon in the Champions Cup clash in January 2017 underlined his repuatation as one the England’s finest back-rowers.

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