People person

Alistair Hargreaves has proved to be the ideal replacement for Steve Borthwick as Saracens captain, writes PAUL MORGAN.

Steve Borthwick stood astride the Saracens team like a colossus. The former England captain made a record 265 Premiership appearances, so when he left to become a coach in Japan at the end of last season the search was on for a man to replace him.

Saracens director of rugby Mark McCall didn’t have to look very far … a couple of inches in fact, to Borthwick’s second-row partner Alistair Hargreaves.

That selection says a lot about Hargreaves, the former Shark, and his influence on those around him. McCall was spoilt for choice with Test captains Kelly Brown and Jacques Burger in the team, alongside other compelling candidates like Richard Wigglesworth, Brad Barritt and even Owen Farrell more than capable of stepping into Borthwick’s boots.

If you spend a few minutes with the giant from Durban, you quickly understand why he was selected to fill some of the biggest shoes in English club rugby. He has a straightforward approach to life and through his actions inspires those around him. His calm and quiet exterior hides a man driven by a desire to improve himself and those around him, which is why he has made such an impact in the Premiership in two short years.

‘My approach is simple – treat people well,’ Hargreaves says. ‘I like dealing with people; having a personal relationship with the players and management at Saracens is important to me. We have a philosophy of working hard and working for each other and we hope to get good results through that.

‘I’m lucky to be surrounded by a lot of experienced players. They know the hard work that has to be put in, so I’d be foolish not to use them. I believe in looking to the other leaders in the squad rather than asserting yourself. I try to involve the senior guys where I can and to use all their advice, knowledge and experience.’

‘I like dealing with people; having a personal relationship with the players and management at Saracens is important to me'

Like Borthwick, Hargreaves is a quietly-spoken lock who is a phenomenally hard-working rugby player – rarely spectacular except when scoring a brilliant try against Gloucester this season – who does his talking through his actions on the pitch.  

Saracens made their mark as a pioneering rugby club and when McCall carried out his speedy search, he knew he needed someone who could represent the club on and off the field.

At Saracens, sometimes off-the-field leadership is as important as on it.

Hargreaves – who played four Tests for the Springboks in 2010 and 2011 – had already shown his leadership qualities with the Baby Boks, captaining them in the U19 World Championship in 2004 and 2005, so McCall knew he would take the armband in his stride.

He’d only been in North London less than two years but McCall said of Hargreaves: ‘He has displayed exceptional leadership qualities since arriving at the club [in 2012], and is ideally qualified to be Saracens’ new captain.

‘He is unequivocally respected by staff and players alike, and we feel certain he will lead the players brilliantly, on and off the field.’

Borthwick had signalled his intentions to move into coaching midway through last season, which gave Saracens plenty of time to identify his successor and for Hargreaves to get used to the new role.

‘We started talking about it last season and I regard the captaincy as a fantastic honour,’ says Hargreaves, who returned to Durban during the last off- season to get married. ‘I’m very different to Steve, but I learned a huge amount from him while he was at the club. He is someone I respect hugely.

‘You will never be able to replace a guy like that man for man, so I try to blaze my own trail. We all owe a duty to Steve. He was such an important part of this club and its evolution. We just need to find a way of being dominant without him.’

Very much a gentle giant off the pitch, Hargreaves is hoping to go one better this season than last where Saracens under Borthwick lost in the European and Premiership finals on consecutive weekends.

‘The more you play in these competitions, the more familiar you are with what’s required to do well in them,’ says Hargreaves. ‘Reaching those finals gave us huge confidence going into the new campaign.’

Hargreaves led his side into the European Champions Cup, kicking off with a win over Clermont Auvergne, followed by a defeat at Munster.

‘After playing in Europe for a few seasons, I know every game is a real, physical battle,’ he says. ‘That’s what you have to prepare for.’

Hargreaves followed his great friend and former Shark Brad Barritt to Allianz Park.

‘Brad loved it at Saracens from the start; he always raved about the place so I thought if there was ever time for a change, there was only one club I would be interested in. So I made the plans almost on the spur of the moment and I must say it has been the best decision I’ve made in my career – I haven’t looked back since.’

That decision has certainly been welcomed at Allianz Park and if the future goes as well as the past two years have, Hargreaves and Saracens have a lot to look forward to.

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

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Simon Borchardt