Barritt’s leading role

Brad Barritt made a big contribution as a player and captain during Saracens’ unforgettable season, writes GAVIN MORTIMER.

England’s loss has been Saracens’ gain this season as far as Brad Barritt is concerned. The Durban-born centre hasn’t featured for his adopted country since last year’s World Cup but it’s allowed him to channel his energies into the north London club he joined in 2008.

The result? One English Premiership title and a European Champions Cup crown, not a bad haul for a player deemed surplus to requirements by England coach Eddie Jones. Obviously Barritt has had a little help from his friends in the past season but there’s no doubt his intelligent leadership and aggressive expertise in midfield have been instrumental to Saracens’ success.

He missed only one of Saracens’ nine European games and was a regular presence in a Premiership campaign the club dominated from the outset, losing just four of their 24 league matches. Ask anybody in the English game and they’re pleased for the 29-year-old. Saracens may not be the most popular club in the country for reasons relating to salary caps, playing styles and South African investment, but if wing Chris Ashton is the player the neutrals love to hate, Barritt is the man they can’t help but like.

As self-effacing as Ashton is self-absorbed, Barritt spoke with characteristic modesty in May about why Saracens had been Europe’s outstanding team in 2015-16.

‘It’s been a huge collective effort over the whole season,’ he told the BBC. ‘To go and do it in both competitions and get the double means the world to everyone.’

The heart of the Saracens side is also the heart of the England XV, but despite the absence for the duration of the Six Nations of fullback Alex Goode, flyhalf Owen Farrell, locks George Kruis and Maro Itoje and the Vunipola brothers, Mako and Billy, the club was able to call on the experience of ageing warhorses such as Charlie Hodgson, Neil de Kock and Jacques Burger. 

‘It is about being relentless,’ said Barritt. ‘This club prides itself on delivering a performance week in, week out.’

No one personifies that pride as much as Barritt. He’s the model professional, a player as committed on the field as he is courteous off it, dealing with the countless media and commercial obligations that come with captaincy. Nothing appears to be too much trouble for Barritt, who also counts among his attributes a rare articulacy in the modern game.

‘It is a great club of players who are driven by success and making memories together,’ said Barritt, after Saracens had clinched the double by beating Exeter in the Premiership final. ‘I’m so pleased I can do it with a group of guys who I can call my best friends. It makes it pretty special doing it with guys you love and who mean the world to you.’

Barritt signed what Saracens described as a ‘long-term contract extension’ in 2015, a deal that will almost certainly see him end his playing career in north London. Mark McCall, Saracens director of rugby, said at the time: ‘Without question, he’s the most competitive person I’ve come across. In the seven years he’s been here, Brad has grown as a player and as a person.’

McCall’s predecessor, former Springbok centre Brendan Venter, was similarly effusive in his praise of Barritt, describing him as ‘everything you want in an international: a low error-rate, a brilliant defender, passes the ball beautifully, can kick the ball out of hand, is a great communicator and recycles the ball well.’

The coach who Venter replaced at Saracens in 2009 was Jones, the man who signed Barritt from the Sharks in August 2008.

‘He’s a talented footballer who can control games but he also has a physical edge to his game,’ said the Australian.

Barritt was 21 when he left the Republic. He had played 58 times for the Sharks, and in departing he gave notice he would be back once his three-year deal had run its course.

‘The Sharks are my home, but this is a unique opportunity as a young guy to broaden my horizons,’ he said. ‘I am not turning my back on the Sharks or Springbok rugby.’

Four years later Barritt won the first of his 26 England caps, qualifying on account of English grandparents (and the three-year residency rule). Ironically, it looks as though Jones has decided the talent that made him sign Barritt eight years ago isn’t what is required for the England squad he inherited last November.

It’s a curious decision by Jones to overlook a player whose calming authority is just what the callow England backline requires. When Barritt left South Africa in 2008 Sharks coach John Plumtree hailed his rugby talent but singled out his ‘great leadership qualities’ as what he and the team would miss most. Those same leadership qualities are also cherished by McCall, whose first words to the press after beating Racing 92 to win the Champions Cup were: ‘Personally I am thrilled for the players, who were so well captained by Brad.’

The challenge now for Barritt is to keep Saracens at the summit in the seasons ahead, and he’s confident that can be done.

‘The mantra of this club has been to sustain what we’ve built,’ said Barritt. ‘We know the drive and hunger is still there and it burns deep within this team.’

– This article first appeared in the July 2016 issue of SA Rugby magazine

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Simon Borchardt