Adam Hathaway looks at one of the more unsung heroes in a champion side, and how they miss him when he is not about, and has three wishes for 2019.
Brad Barritt might never play for England again after winning 26 caps, under then-head coach Stuart Lancaster, from 2012 to the 2015 Rugby World Cup exit but he will always get a game at Allianz Park if he is fit.
Saracens will sure be hoping their club captain and centre gets back in the mix before too long.
Barritt missed last Saturday’s scrappy win over Worcester with a head knock but it only took about 12 minutes to see why Sarries’ value him so much. Martin Johnson once said the longer he was retired the better player he became and the more Barritt is out of the Saracens the more you can see how much they miss him.
The Premiership champions would never put one player above any other but Barritt is one the biggest cogs in their wheel and there are some big cogs in there. Maro Itoje, Billy Vunipola, Liam Williams, Richard Wigglesworth, Michael Rhodes and Jackson Wray were all out at the weekend and our might performers for the club and the first three are rock stars.
But there is an argument that says Barritt is more important to Saracens than the lot of them.
Saracens are full of stars but Barritt is the adhesive in running the defence and the whole ethos of the club. He puts himself about all right and takes more than his fair share of hits and he runs the show defensively. We shudder at the number of times we have seen Barritt coming off the pitch with blood streaming from his head but he shrugs off and puts his body in the line of fire week after week. Most Premiership clubs would pay a king’s ransom to have Barritt on their books.
Eddie Jones uses the phrase ‘glue player’ when he talks about Chris Robshaw in the England set-up. Nothing flash and Barritt, like Robshaw and Richard Hill before him, the Durban-born man gets the job done but does not always get the praise he deserves.
In the 2007 Super Rugby campaign Barritt played most of the matches for the Sharks at fly-half because Butch James was injured for most of the season.
Guess where he went after that and guess who signed him for Saracens.
You guessed right – it was Eddie Jones who was at the-then Vicarage Road-based club as director of rugby but had seen a bit of Barritt in Super Rugby but he has never played a Test under Jones.
As an aside, Barritt is a top bloke and is more than just a captain on the field and a crash bang wallop centre. When players might have got nervous last year as the South African investors pulled out of the club, leaving Nigel Wray to buy out the other half of the club it was Barritt who they went to. Barritt got the reassurances the squad needed and not another word was said.
When Barritt played his 200th game for Saracens last season he did get some praise off his club boss Mark McCall.
McCall told us: “He sets an unbelievable example on the field, where he is as competitive a person as you will find anywhere. Off the field he does all the right things as well. He has been massively central to the environment that exists here. People do damn him with all sorts of qualified praise.
“But you need to understand the totality of the position. We do.
“The detail of Brad’s work is exceptional. He has been instrumental to what we have done at Saracens.”
Clearly he still is central to everything, from the centre.
Last Saturday the Barritt-less Saracens defence was breached twice in the first 12 minutes and it looked like an upset was on the cards before they got their act together and put Worcester away 25-17. The first try, scored by Duncan Weir, might have been a bit unlucky for the champions but for the second, touched down by the rarely-sighted Ben Te’o, came when the home defence was sliced apart. You can’t blame Alex Lozowski, who was playing 12 too much, but Barritt is an experienced head and an experienced organiser.
Last year Saracens went on a bad run. In the middle of it they played Clermont in a Champions Cup pool game at Allianz Park that had to be switched from Sunday to Monday because of snow.
When the game was finally played Barritt was taken off injured in the second minute and Saracens were torn to pieces, going on to lose 46-14. The weather was horrible that night but not as horrible as the beating Saracens took and they took it pretty badly.
It ultimately meant they had to go to Dublin for the quarter-final against Leinster after creeping into the last eight. In Europe home advantage means a bundle in the knock-out stages and Saracens’ goose was cooked when they had to play the team who would become champions.
But it all went back to that home game against Clermont when Barritt was missing in action for most of the piece.
It says something about Barritt, who is now 32, and that he played the quarter-final at the Aviva Stadium a few days after having a plate put in a facial injury. What says even more about him is the matter-of-fact way he told us about it the day after he had surgery when we went to the press day to preview the match in the week.
Then he told us: “I had a horizontal crack in my cheekbone so I have had a titanium plate put in there which I’m told is now stronger than the other side. I only realised it was fractured later that evening when I blew my nose and it inflated. It was a pretty surreal experience but I have had a lot more painful things in my day. The surgeon was very confident, he’d done it before on elderly people who weren’t fit to go under the anaesthetic. I literally rolled in there and was out within 25 minutes.”
He couldn’t rescue Saracens’ European campaign last year, but with games against Lyon and Glasgow to come, the two-time champions could do with seeing him back on parade for the rest of the season. He is that important – just ask Mark McCall.
As 2019 has just arrived RugbySpy has a few wishes for the next 12 months………..let’s hope they come true.
1.Billy Vunipola to get fit and stay fit. The big No.8 was due to be back for the Saracens game against Worcester after his latest broken arm but missed out. He has had three broken arms, a knee injury and shoulder trip. He missed the 2017 British & Irish Lions tour and has not played for England since the South Africa tour and has won just 36 caps when he could have had 77 after making his debut in Argentina in 2013. England need him – and we wouldn’t mind it if Manu Tuilagi stayed fit as well.
2. The promotion and relegation debate to be put to bed for once and for all in the Premiership. Sport is not sport without some sort of competitiveness at the bottom of the league, and shame on all those advocating ring-fencing the league and denying Championship clubs the chance to dream. Two words – Exeter Chiefs.
3. Eddie Jones to play all 15 players in his starting 15 in their correct positions. In the recent past he has played Elliott Daly at wing and full-back, Mike Brown at wing and Jack Nowell in the centre etc, etc. And if clubs could play players where Jones wants them, he sees Chris Ashton as wing, he is, and Sale are playing him at full-back, that would be handy as well but won’t happen. We are all for experimentation but it is now 2019, and 2019 is World Cup year.