Will Fraser goes through a ritual before every match he plays for Saracens. The rugged openside flanker has his wrists and thumbs bandaged, and on the tape around his left wrist he writes the initials ‘HF’. The initials are those of his 20-year-old brother, Henry. He explains why he does it.
“When Henry was 17 he went on holiday to Portugal with some mates, they went to the beach, and he just ran into the sea and dived in, just as you see on TV all the time. We don’t know exactly what happened – he doesn’t remember any of it – but he hit a sandbank and crushed his spinal-cord at chin level. It left him paralysed from the shoulders down.
“He was in intensive care for three weeks in Portugal, and was in a very bad way. He couldn’t breathe unassisted, and there were a few scares when he nearly drifted off. My brothers and I didn’t see him at his worst, but mum and dad flew out to Portugal, and then he came back to spend six months at Stoke Mandeville. Mum was there all day everyday, and I would go straight from training each day to see him. All of us, grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins, visited constantly.”
By the time Henry had returned home Will had moved into a house in St Albans with a few Saracens teammates, but he says he goes home to see his younger brother all the time.
Will says: “He loves rugby, in many ways even more now than before. He wrote some blogs for ESPN’s scrum.com during the autumn internationals, and there’s a website, “In At The Side”, which mainly covers schools and universities rugby, which he also writes for. He’s a real sports boffin, and recently he wrote a piece on how the draft system similar to that in American Football might benefit the Premiership.
“He’s really enjoying it, and it keeps him busy meeting deadlines. He’s also very heavily involved in the Matt Hampson Foundation, so he has a lot on his plate, which is good.”
He continues: “Henry’s brilliant. He is inspirational – he’s just got on with it, and is making the most of his life. Obviously, he loved his rugby. I play for him, as well as myself. There is definitely an underlying drive there. He makes me proud.”
It is a drive that has taken Fraser into the starting line-up of a Saracens side that is gathering itself for the big push in the second half of the season, with the club having secured a good assault position in both the Premiership and the Heineken Cup. Even better, it has given, Fraser, 23, the chance to showcase his strengths at the breakdown, and as a roving support runner.
Fraser is the ideal openside build, a powerful, compact 6ft 1in, 16st 5lb forager, who is strong in all departments, whether over the ball, carrying, or tackling. Over the last fortnight he has earned plaudits on the European stage for his grit in Saracens 19-13 victory over Munster at Vicarage Road which put them within sight of a home quarter-final, as well as for his conspicuous contribution to the emphatic 22-0 league win at Bath last weekend, which kept them hot on the heels of leaders Harlequins.
Fraser is also typical of the strong Hertfordshire seam that runs through the Saracens Anglo-Springbok amalgam, having been born at Watford General, which is adjacent to Vicarage Road. His family has strong links to the area, and he and his three brothers learned their rugby at Fullerians, where their father, Andrew, was a club stalwart, and Amersham & Chiltern.
“My dad, and my uncle, played at Fullerians. Dad started when he was 15, and finished when he was 46, playing for the 1st XV and finishing in the Vets. Me and my brothers Tom (24), Henry, and Dominic (17) would be down at the club most weekends. Dad runs his own graphic design company, so he sponsored the club as well. All four of us played at Amersham & Chiltern first, Tom, who is a fly-half, stayed there, while I went Fullerians when I was 14, and Henry did the same.
“I went to Berkhamsted Collegiate and then Dulwich College at sixth form level, and so did Henry, who also played in the back row. Dominic followed us, and he was at inside-centre in the Dulwich team which won the Daily Mail Cup last season.”
Fraser, who has played in the backrow since he was 13, and has focused on openside for the last six years, attracted the attention of the Saracens scouts when he was 14. He became part of an elite player development group which also included hooker Jamie George, and grew to include other homegrown players who have forced Saracens director of rugby, Mark McCall, to sit up and take notice over the last two seasons. “We were soon joined by George Kruis, Jackson Wray and others, and there’s a big group of us now from the academy who are making good strides. It’s good to have a group who have come through it with you.”
Fraser says he has always been highly motivated, especially after missing out on some of the England age group sides. “I played England U16, but at U18 and U20 it didn’t happen for me. You just had to take it on the chin – but, when you are playing with or against guys who are recognised at that level, you feel you have a point to prove.”
Tenacity is a hallmark of all great flankers, and Fraser’s mindset against Munster after he had been sin-binned – leaving Saracens to play with 14-men with the game in the balance – emphasised that he has the right DNA. Moments after coming back on his breakdown challenge won the penalty which Owen Farrell kicked to extend the Saracens lead to a six point winning margin.
“I was binned for a high tackle, but thought it was harsh. The game was so tight, and it makes such a difference when you lose a man, but the rest of the guys defended so well. I said to myself that I needed to do something to make up for it when I got back on, and (coach) Alex Sanderson said the same thing. The opportunity presented itself, and, thankfully, it worked out.”
Fraser talks candidly about the ‘They Shall Not Pass Mentality’ that has made Saracens into the best defensive side in England. “It’s about getting up off the line as fast as you can and twatting someone. In defence you can see the spirit and belief in each other. It’s for the team, and there is massive pride in it. It is a pillar of this club, and it is a way of showing each other how much it means to us.”
Suggest to Fraser that with Chris Robshaw blocking the path into the England side at No.7 for the forseeable future international honours could be hard to come by, and his responses are pragmatic and positive. “Chris can shift around the back row, and can play blindside and No.8 – so, if another No.7 forces his way in, he’s able to move. However, his work rate is phenomenal, and he is playing very well. You have to give credit where it’s due.”
Ask him whether he feels envious of Sam Cane, who at 21 is already an All Black after understudying Richie McCaw this season, while he and other young English opensides, like Luke Wallace and Matt Kvesic, are outside the England elite, and he says: “Sam Cane is a brilliant player, and you look at Richie McCaw and New Zealand clearly want someone stepping in who can do the same job. They have a smaller pool to pick from than us, and there are a lot of guys here coming through at openside. Of course, we all want to be involved with England going forward, but it all depends on doing the best you can for your club.”
Fraser says he could not have a better bank of back row knowledge to help him develop at openside than that available to him at Saracens, with World Cup-winner Richard Hill, and coaches Alex Sanderson and Paul Gustard, all former flankers.
“Hilly was my mentor when I first signed for Saracens at 18, and I recall that when we went to ‘A’ team games he was a massive help. Now Alex Sanderson and Paul Gustard have taken over, and they also know the back row intricately.”
However, Fraser has his own views on the importance of openside specialists. “You need to have a position if you’re involved in a club from a young age, but it’s also important to be adaptable – and this season I’ve played three or four games at blindside. The danger is that if you are dabbling in all three back row positions you might not get a look-in, so overall your aim is to be very good in one position, rather than average in three.”
He also sheds some light on how much the No.7 role has changed in the modern pro game.
“Winning turnovers is still the key element, but you cannot afford to go in to every breakdown. It is very heavily policed, and you probably cannot get away with what people used to on the floor. It is massively about picking and choosing your moment. At some clubs you have a free rein at openside, but at Sarries they say go for it if you can win a turnover or slow the ball down, but don’t go for lost causes.”
Fraser says that the main evolution has been that some No.7s, like Tom Wood and Robshaw, are main lineout options, whereas in the past it was not openside territory. However, he says that most of the core elements remain the same. “As an openside off the set-piece you are usually there first or second to the breakdown, so there are more opportunities available to you than to other players.”
He is also straight down the line in his appraisal of the best opensides in the business, domestically and in Europe: “Julian Salvi at Leicester stands out in the Premiership. He is the best at the breakdown, because he’s so quick off the deck. Exeter’s James Scaysbrook has a lot of experience, knows the tricks of the trade, and is a hard bloke. When it comes to playing in Europe, it has to be Steffon Armitage – he’s playing bloody well.”
Closer to home Fraser has a fit again Andy Saull to contend with, but he says there’s no friction with his Saracens team-mate.
“There isn’t really a rivalry. We get on very well, and he’s been very helpful to me in terms of tips. He’s had a bad run of injury, but because we have a rotation policy everyone gets game time”. When asked who’s faster he’s even generous enough to concede, “I’d say Saully’s a bit quicker, but there’s not much in it.”
However, the races Fraser is concentrating on for the moment are the Premiership and the Heineken Cup, and he feels Saracens have what it takes to win them. “The strength in depth at the club is phenomenal, and we played the wet conditions brilliantly against Bath, whereas the start of the season we scored a lot of tries in the dry against London Irish. Having both fly-halves is great because Owen (Farrell) and Charlie (Hodgson) each bring something different, and then we can also bring on someone like Brad Barritt to crash through. The aim is to have the capacity to play in all conditions against all teams.”
He admits that the idea of winning a double is tantalizing. “It’s there in the back of the mind, although we don’t like to look too far ahead. But we know where we should be – and that’s in the finals of the Premiership and the European Cup.”
What you can also count on is that when it comes to Fraser’s drive to meet those goals, the lettering on his wrist guarantees that his comes to the power of two.