Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 23 July 2014

Saracens have wolves at the door – literally – to stay focused

Paul Gustard brought wolves into Saracens

England's Aviva Premiership line-up includes its share of animal kingdom references – Leicester Tigers, London Wasps, Sale Sharks.

But recently the series leaders, Saracens – a plain, straightforward name with no animal attachments – went for an altogether fresh approach by adding wolves.

Not to their name but to their dressing room. Yes, two quite literal wolves!

Phil Gustard, the Aviva Premiership toppers' defence coach, recruited the animals in the belief that their presence would help keep the players' minds focused on the job in hand and their roles in hunting down opponents.

The idea came to him after players began describing themselves as being like a wolf pack when it came to tracking and tackling opposition players. But those players were stunned when Gustard brought two wolves to a team meeting before their March 24 Premiership clash with Harlequins.

Saracens and England out-half Owen Farrell admitted to having found the experience a bit unnerving.

"We talked about the power of the wolf and why we picked our defence to be a wolf pack then, suddenly, Gussie brought two wolves in. They're pretty fierce animals and I was a bit on edge. Maybe I shouldn't have picked to sit in the front row that day," said the goal-kicking maestro, usually coolness personified under pressure.

"The words that Guzzy said meant a lot; there is a reason why we call ourselves the wolf pack. But to actually have the wolves there was a bit scary, so I couldn't really relax. They were on a leash but I think if that thing had wanted to eat me, it would have eaten me," Farrell said.

Despite his misgivings, Owen finished that Allianz Park match against Harlequins with 17 of his side's points in their 27-12 win.

Gustard's explanation of his unorthodox pre-match approach was: "You want people to remember things. They hear me for 50 weeks of the year and I do two or three presentations a week on different things.

"You want something to stand out at times and it was the first opportunity post the Six Nations to get everyone back into the groove and doing what we want."

Alex Sanderson, Saracens' forwards coach, was the 'fixer'.

"Alex arranged for the wolves to come in," Gustard said. "It was the toughest thing to organise."

As for what the unusual visit entailed, he added: "The wolves had their own itinerary. They were upstairs, they were in the changing room with the boys and on the pitch."

And Ulster supporters thought they had seen it all when a fox turned up during half-time at the RDS last Saturday night!

Gustard's marking of players' defensive efforts includes a 'wolf rating', the ultimate accolade he reserves for a five-star performance.

Explaining his thinking in bringing wolves to the team meeting he said: "I wanted to give a meaning behind it and a heartbeat and a soul.

"The wolf pack idea was something different and represented our mentality; we have to hunt, we have to get people and when we get there we have to be savage. It epitomises everything."

And in keeping with that theme, in defending under-fire Chris Ashton's recent form, Gustard called the England wing a key member of the Sarries wolf pack.

"Chris is not a bad defender. Occasionally he misses a tackle but so what? Everyone does. You can either focus on somebody's negatives or their positives," the north London club's defence coach said.

"At this club you'll never be vilified for a mistake, only a lack of effort."

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