Evening Standard

Brad Barritt quickly reels off the names of coaches who have influenced him. Starting with those from his childhood in South Africa, he continues through Eddie Jones, the former Australia coach who brought him to Saracens, and Brendan Venter, who was hugely influential after he arrived.

But no coach has made the impression on him that Stuart Lancaster did when the England squad met at a steak house in Leeds before the Six Nations.

At the end of the meal, reveals Barritt: “Stuart presented each of us with a frame. Inside each one were messages from family, friends, and people who had been significant in our rugby lives. He had contacted my dad, my brother, even my high school rugby coach in South Africa. He’d asked them questions such as: what does it mean for your loved one to play for your country? What does the team need to do to win?”

Having played under Lancaster for the Saxons, England’s second side, Barritt knew he liked the personal touch. Just before the 2009 Churchill Cup Final, Lancaster had sent a hand-written letter to each player wishing him luck. But this was new territory.

The Sarries centre says: “It gave players this connection with their families, who are there for you in good times or bad. It was a very special moment. It meant the world to us. No one had ever presented anything like that to me before. To read what they had said was beautiful. It is something I carried to every game and something I will cherish for a long time.”

Barritt would not dream of saying that was the reason for his barn-storming displays which helped England finish second in the Six Nations, just months after their troubled World Cup. But for him it represents what Lancaster brings to his job.

Brad Barritt. Image courtesy of the Evening Standard

The 25-year-old was in South Africa for his brother’s wedding when it was announced last week that Lancaster had been appointed England head coach. Lancaster was initially handed charge of the team solely for the Six Nations and it was expected he would then make way for a more experienced candidate — such as former South Africa and Italy coach Nick Mallett.

But the former teacher made such an impact, that the Rugby Football Union have entrusted him with the squad for the World Cup here in 2015.

“It’s great news,” says Barritt. “The players were not consulted but we wanted Stuart. Everybody had enjoyed the Six Nations and it was just reward for a guy who has come through the ranks. He works hard and sets a culture within the side. Culture means the players enjoy their time together. Rugby is an emotional sport and, when you get that emotional connection between management and players, it works wonders with a young team. Guys were willing to put their bodies on the line and go the extra mile, working hard both on and off the pitch.

“What Stuart did brilliantly was to set the framework for players to show their skills. It was so well organised and planned ahead that, as a player, whenever you arrived somewhere you wanted to give your all for the side.

“He is very calm under pressure. He does not put an arm round players but he gives you a lot of confidence going into a game.”

But what about when things go wrong? “He does not throw cups, not at all,” says Barritt. “I’ve heard of the Alex Ferguson hairdryer treatment but there is none of that. Nor would I expect a boot to come flying at me as happened with David Beckham.

“Stuart is very down to earth. He keeps your feet on the ground. Very organised, tactically astute, he encourages players to be aware of the immense amount of pride in representing the country. Playing for England is the pinnacle. You have that responsibility to be role models, to be a person that young kids can look up to.”

Not many kids could have looked up to England’s World Cup players given their off-field shenanigans. Lancaster’s desire to bring in fresh blood — such as Barritt — meant the Six Nations squad varied greatly from the one in New Zealand but the Sarries man admits the new line-up were conscious of the World Cup baggage they carried.

“The England team had been dragged through the mud a little bit. We were very aware of that. The team were very eager to change. It was important to bring some pride back in the jersey and back to English rugby. We have taken a step forward but it is a long-term thing. It cannot happen in one night.”

England’s next chance to do that is in the summer when Lancaster takes his team to South Africa for three Tests. Barritt, while not presuming he will be selected, can already feel the excitement of returning to the country of his birth. This is all the greater as the First Test is in Durban where he was born and brought up.

“I know the ground [Kings Park] well and it will be a great homecoming to represent England there. In the Six Nations, we were 10 minutes away from a potential Grand Slam and that performance against Wales inspired the wins against Ireland and France. The Paris win was the best moment for me. But these are small steps in the right direction. The three Tests against South Africa are a huge opportunity to do well and have a series victory. It will be tough but it will be amazing to play a country steeped in rugby tradition.”

For Barritt, who came to this country four years ago, there is no problem in playing against the land of his birth. He looks genuinely puzzled when I mention the debate about Plastic Brits, which has surrounded Great Britain’s athletics team ahead of London 2012.

He says: “I’ve not seen anything about that. I can recite the national anthem. Guys who may have grown up in other places are just as proud to play for England. I have strong English links within my family, my mum’s side being entirely English, my dad’s side one generation further back all English.

“I had a great childhood in South Africa. I still love the country but I’m equally proud to play for England. As a child I supported South Africa but spent a lot of time in England. My grandparents, who now live in South Africa, support England and I have aunts and uncles in Devon. When I was growing up, my favourite player was Jeremy Guscott.”

Barritt joined Saracens after playing for South Africa in the Under-21 World Cup Final in 2006 and the Emerging Springboks the following year. But he did not arrive in this country with any plans to play for England.

“When I came over [in 2008], I was eager to experience a different life, enjoy London and see what was it like to play rugby in a different society,” he says. “I was flattered when offered a chance to play for the Saxons in 2009. There was no problem choosing England. At that stage, I had enjoyed England so much I definitely wanted to be here for the long term and I had the full backing of my family and friends in South Africa.”

“Amazing” as that Saxons experience was, it was topped by his Six Nations debut in the 13-6 win against Scotland at the start of the championship. “It was an immensely proud moment, the highlight of my career to date.”

The Six Nations, which saw Lancaster award a dozen new caps, also saw Barritt’s fellow Sarries player and South African-born Mouritz Botha make his debut. But Barritt accepts their journeys to England were very different.

“Mo’s is more of a hardship story than mine,” he says. “He came over, started with a second division club [Bedford] and worked his way up. Mine is a more traditional rugby background. I have been very lucky. My family were able to send me to good schools and provided for me. I went straight from South African schools to playing for Sharks, then South African Under-21s, Super 14, Sarries and now England. But you have to work for everything you get. However Mo’s story is one to seriously — what is the word — admire.”

On Sunday, they will be trying to get Saracens into the semi-finals of the Heinken Cup when they face Clermont Auvergne at Vicarage Road.

“It’s a huge match, do or die. We have an advantage of playing at home but Clermont are a terrific side and we will have to be at the top of our game.”

Despite losing to Premiership leaders Harlequins at Wembley on Saturday, Saracens are still second in the table, encouraging Barritt to believe the club could retain their title and win the Heineken Cup.

“We want to be a power in Europe, mentioned along with Munster, Leinster, Toulouse, Wasps and Leicester who have had continuous success and European success,”  he says.

Barritt is aware the path to that is “a long hard road”. But that, he says, is no different to being world champions. “With the talent we have and a settled coach, England have the potential to be World Cup winners. South Africa in the summer is the first step towards that.”

Follow Mihir on Twitter @mihirbose


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