Premier 15s: Saracens have new coach, but same title ambition remains
Saracens’ new coach Alex Austerberry makes no disguise of the champions’ ambitions for the new Premier 15s season.
“We’re looking to retain our title,” he told BBC Sport. “Hopefully in April we’ll be picking up a trophy, but I think there are nine other teams that want to do that as well.
“If it was easy it wouldn’t be fun.”
Austerberry has taken charge after Rob Cain left the club in the summer to become head coach of the USA.
Having previously worked at Saracens, the decision for Austerberry to return to the club was “an offer to good to turn down”.
He continued: “It was a no-brainer really, a chance to test myself while working with some really talented individuals in a group that’s got even more potential than it showed last year.”
Whatsapps and strawberry milk – how Saracens added new signings
Setting up the team up for the new season has not been straightforward, with Austerberry only starting full-time at the end of August.
Any new signings were not in place and Austerberry had to take time away from his old job to secure his new players.
Internationals Sarah McKenna and Vicky Fleetwood had previously played for Sarries before their England Sevens contracts ended, but it was not a given they would be returning to the club.
Fleetwood’s signature was finally secured in 35 degree heat at a coffee shop in Clapham Junction, despite her new coach’s choice of drink.
Austerberry said: “She had a warm drink but I don’t do hot drinks, so I had a strawberry milk option, which makes me look like a 12-year-old child.”
McKenna agreed to return after meetings at Saracens’ training ground Old Albanians, however Chantelle Miell’s services were slightly trickier to secure as she has travelled to Sydney University for three months to take part in their rugby sevens programme.
A succession of phone chats and Whatsapp messages across the time zones mean she will join up with the squad in mid-October.
Austerberry was well aware that other clubs were interested in Saracens’ big-name signings.
“Every club in the league is wanting to up skill and recruit,” he said. “When you’ve got three players who have been released by an England programme it would be silly for other clubs to not try to recruit them.”
‘Agents will become more frequent’
As women’s club rugby remains amateur, no agents are involved when it comes to player signings. However, as the debate surrounding women’s rugby turning professional intensifies, Austerberry knows things will have to change.
“At the moment it’s not the wild west, there is still an amount of respect from the clubs and players, but going forward it might be something that needs to be looked at so it is structured and appropriate for clubs and players,” he said.
“When it comes to the age of professionalism, agents will be something that become more frequent and commonplace, but that’s where we need to learn from other sports and it will be a regulated practise if agents are involved.”
Saracens start their title defence on the road at Firwood Waterloo Ladies on Saturday and have renewed backing from the club that they will be more aligned with the men’s team this season.
Club owner Nigel Wray has admitted he has been slow to realise the potential of the women’s team, but that is now changing.
The men’s head of performance Phil Morrow and strength and conditioning coach Andy Edwards have already started working with the women’s staff, while physio Laura Tulloch is supporting the women’s physios and medical team.
There is further good news for the team, with key players and England internationals Marlie Packer and Poppy Cleall having moved closer to the club after commuting from the West Country last season.
In 2017-18, Packer was the league’s top try scorer with 20 tries.