Saracens set to throw off shackles

  • All work, some play: Schalk Burger, centre, carries the ball as Scott Spurling, left, Nick Isiekwe, centre right, and Richard Barrington close in during a training drill at North Field. The European champions play the US Islanders in a pre-season match tomorrow night (Photograph by Blaire Simmons)
  • Ben Spencer passes the ball during Saracens’ training session yesterday (Photograph by Blaire Simmons)

Protein shakes rather than beer will fuel Saracens when they face the USA Islanders in a clash featuring the highest standard of rugby union to have been played in Bermuda.

The Aviva Premiership side will throw off the shackles when they take on the Islanders in the Atlantic Cup at North Field tomorrow night as the European champions start their build-up to the new season.

Unlike their previous two visits to Bermuda, which have been during the postseason and therefore far more relaxed and low key, Saracens’ weeklong trip is all about business this time around.

Brad Barritt, the club captain, said the team were champing at the bit for their first taste of action after five weeks of intensive strength and conditioning work.

“Usually when we come in June the guys have come off a long season and are here to enjoy the rugby but also get amongst the beers,” Barritt, the England centre, said.

“This time it’s the parallel opposite and there’s a steely focus as we’re an ambitious team that wants to put in as much work as we can.

“It’s a complete different mindset and we have 23 hungry individuals who are going to go out there to make their mark.

“It’s an exciting time of the year and Thursday night is our first opportunity to get a taste of all of the hard work we’ve been putting in.”

Barritt is among a squad of 44 players to have travelled to Bermuda, which includes their Lions contingent — Owen Farrell, Jamie George, George Kruis, Maro Itoje, Mako Vunipola and Liam Williams — who are unavailable for selection.

The players took part in a rugby-specific training session in the sweltering heat at North Field yesterday as they stepped up their preparations for the Islanders — a concept team including players of Tongan, Samoan, Hawaiian and Fijian descent.

“You don’t get many more beautiful places to play rugby and it’s a privilege to be here,” Barritt, 31, said. “The guys have been buzzing about this all summer long and I think they’re really going to put on a show for the Bermudian supporters.”

Fittingly, it will be Chris Wyles, a former United States captain, who will lead Saracens tomorrow night.

Wyles captained the USA Eagles in the 2015 World Cup in England and is his country’s most capped full back.

“Chris is a folk hero in the US,” Barritt added. “It’s great that he will get to lead Saracens after almost ten years of phenomenal service.”

Wyles, 33, admits it will be a “bit surreal” to wear the captain’s armband against a side including several of his former US team-mates.

“To skipper the Sarries boys against the US Islanders will be awesome,” Wyles said. “It’s nice on a personal level with my US connection to play against a bunch of guys who I know really well.

“I know the Islanders are going to come out and play with huge amounts of pride. The Islander community in US rugby is a massive force and is pushing things forward and helping grow the game.

“They will want to represent the US Islanders really well and we’re prepared for a real test and are taking it very seriously.”

Gareth Nokes, the Bermuda Rugby Football Union chairman, believes the intensity of tomorrow’s match will be far greater than anything Bermuda has seen before.

“You’ve got Saracens, the European champions and arguably the best club side in the world, taking on some of the best talent in the US at the start of a new season,” Nokes said.

“Unless you’re going to host a league game in Bermuda, which is almost impossible, this is as good as it gets.

“I think the big difference this time is that it’s a preseason game as opposed to a postseason game. It’s phenomenal that we’re going to have World Cup winners like Schalk Burger and England players such Ben Earl and Nick Isiekwe involved — players at the absolute top of their game.”

The match, which is $20 admission and free for children, kicks off at 7.30pm, while a collegiate all-star game between the Liberty Conference and the Republic of Texas will be held at 5.30pm. Proceeds will be donated to the Bermuda Beyond Rugby charity.