“If we dig in and accept the challenge, it is very much in our hands”

Ahead of Thursday's Varsity Match, former Saracens flanker Andy Saull tells Matt Roller that he is playing the most unselfish rugby of his career

Saull in action for Newcastle Falcons in the European Challenge Cup [Photo: Chris Lishman]

On the face of it, it is hard to see why a university rugby match would matter to a Premiership-winning flanker with over 120 caps for Saracens and England Saxons experience.

But it soon becomes clear when you speak to Andy Saull, that, to him, it matters one hell of a lot.

“It’s been a transitional period of my life,” he tells Cherwell. “But this is the first time in my life since I was fifteen years old where all [I’ve been] playing for is the respect of my team.

“I’ve played in teams where that’s almost been the case, but there’s always been a financial issue and a selfish issue: I want to get selected for my country, I want to get a contract for next year, I want to earn my bonus. It’s definitely something that’s often lacking, a genuine ‘I will die for my teammates’ feeling that is prevalent in this Oxford squad.”

And to Saull, this is far more than just a one-off game. It might be expected that a man who has played at Twickenham several times before, notably in two Premiership finals for Saracens, should be a leader for the younger players in the squad, but that is not how he sees it.

“I wouldn’t say there’s a difference between the professionals and non-professionals,” he says. “But I’d say there’s a difference between those who have played Varsities before and those who haven’t. For us as professionals, we haven’t played the same one-off, winner-takes-all, whole season depends on it type of game.

“Whereas those who have played in Varsities before – Conor Kearns, Will Wilson, Will Thornton – are able to talk to us, and tell us ‘here’s how to win the game, here’s how to approach the training.’ So we’re the ones who are new to this concept.”

Indeed, Oxford will line up with only six returning Blues in the side next Thursday, so it is important that the burden of leadership is shared across the XV.

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“It’s about the ability to look others in the eye [after the game] and knowing that as a group of 23, 40 or 80, you’ve achieved something for each other,” Saull says. “It’s the respect that you have for each other with the players around you that will stick with you for a lifetime.

“That will really be the mark of success for me – whether we can really help form those bonds and show that commitment that we’ll talk about forever to come.”

The Dark Blues have every reason to be confident going into Thursday’s game. While opponents Cambridge have had a mixed season, with some narrow wins punctuated by heavy defeats, Oxford have won eight of their ten fixtures to date.

Furthermore, the standard of opposition has been high throughout: Saull is keen to point out the side’s victories over the Collegiate All-Americans side, the Irish champions (Trinity College Dublin), last year’s Bucs Super Rugby champions (Hartpury College) and this season’s early pace-setters, Northumbria.

“I’ve always been told by my friends at other universities, like Newcastle or Leeds, that Oxford and Cambridge aren’t the best university teams any more. But we’ve played the best teams in the US, Ireland and the UK, and we’ve beaten them all. This is, for want of a better analogy, to become the best university team in the Northern Hemisphere – that’s going to be a very nice little title.”

Naturally, there are nerves in the camp ahead of such a big game, and Saull does not try to play those down. “Anxiety levels have increased a little bit, and there’s an appreciation of the task at hand,” he says. “We really have to be on our game.”

“We’ve obviously looked at a few of their tactics, and identified a few of their strengths and a few of their weaknesses, as any clever side would do. But ultimately, we’re fully aware that if we do dig in and accept the challenge, then it is very much in our hands.”

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Saull will line up as part of a frighteningly strong back row for Oxford, with ex-Viadana and Italy U20 player Rob Talotti starting as the other flanker, and former England Sevens man Will Wilson at number eight.

But it is a fresher who Saull picks out as his key man.

“The player who I’m thrilled has been selected is Charlie Pozniak.

“He’s come in, and I’ve not seen a man so inquisitive in my life before. He asks question, retains the information, learns, and adapts his game accordingly,” Saull says of the 19-year-old. “He has tried so hard to get into the Varsity squad, let alone get a starting position. He’s someone I want on my team, and someone I’m going to be playing for.”

On a personal note, Saull is determined to win at Twickenham, but he does not see the trophy as the only marker of success in the game.

“I see my career highlights as… [the times] when a team has just had such a lovely bond, and everything has clicked, rather than the attainable trophy of winning the Premiership,” he says.

Indeed, it seems as though Oxford rugby means far more to Andy Saull than just winning a one-off fixture. While some ex-pros – including Cambridge’s Ollie Phillips this year – play only a game or two in the run-up to a Varsity fixture, and as a result struggle to integrate into their club, the 29-year-old has built friendships and memories since his debut in September that he will carry with him into the game.

Securing a win on the day remains the ultimate challenge, but Saull’s season with OURFC reflects everything good about Oxford rugby: his determination, drive and love of the game stand the Blues in good stead for any challenge thrown at them.

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