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Guscott column: The culture which keeps Saracens and Exeter streets ahead of the rest

SARACENS and Exeter are great for the Premiership, and anyone who excels and improve individuals as well as teams, can only be good for English rugby.

When Leicester, Wasps and before that Bath, had their own unbeatable periods there is a tendency to think that it will last forever – but inevitably it does not.

In Bath’s case, they could not make the transition from the amateur to the professional era, and that legacy has lived with them until the present day.

Wasps were never quite the same side after Warren Gatland departed, and Leicester’s decline from their height when Martin Johnson and Neil Back were driving their pack forward has been inexorable – leading to a second to last finish in the Premiership for the first time this season.

People inevitably ask themselves whether a period of dominance by a side will ever end, but there is always some dynamic that shifts – and that is why it is difficult for teams to dominate for five or six seasons let alone a decade. Toulouse came pretty close in France – but even they fell off.

Exeter and Saracens have built on different foundations. Exeter are a team  built on community, with local sponsors, a local chairman, a local coach, and a local support base. The community is the heartbeat of the club with chairman Tony Rowe steering the whole enterprise.

Chief supporters will hope that those who replace Rowe, with his passion and business sense, and DoR Rob Baxter, with his team building ability and drive, can emulate what they have done. However, they will be difficult to replace.

Saracens have been built more on  the team being the central platform of the club. They took off following the arrival of Brendan Venter as coach, got their Academy in order, and from the outset have worked out how to get the best out of players.

What I believe that Saracens and Exeter both have in common is that when they recruit players they look at the person first, and then the player – and they do a lot of homework to get it right.

Johan Ackermann
Setting Standards: Gloucester came the closest to Exeter and Saracens in the Premiership standings. Photo by Nathan Stirk/Getty Images

What they’ve created other clubs are trying to emulate. For instance, Paul Gustard will want to do it his own way at Harlequins, and likewise Johan Ackermann at Gloucester, and Chris Boyd at Northampton. However, those teams  are so inconsistent compared to Saracens and Exeter, losing as many games over the course of the league season as they have won, and it reflects a huge difference between first and second, and those in the third, fourth and fifth.

The clubs below those five have been unable to achieve any consistency at all, and until they get the right combination of smart administration, and the right coaching and player pools, they will remain bits and pieces teams.

Boyd has arrived at Northampton and created a different culture to Jim Mallinder, and you can see that the Saints players are enthusiastic because of their level of improvement over the course of the season – with the prospect of further development to come.

What Mark McCall, Baxter, and  Boyd are all doing is selecting well. All you need is for the opposite to happen,  where coaches are picking people for who they are rather than what they do, and you get a very different environment.

Where McCall, Baxter and Boyd pick on form, reflecting what they are doing on the pitch, others who move away from that essential rule start losing the group, as well as respect, and soon discover that no one is playing for a common cause.

The challenge for the clubs in the lower half of the table is to select consistently on merit and build strong squad cultures. In the lower half of the Premiership team performances have gone from poor, to average, to good on consecutive weekends – and then back again in no particular order.

For instance, Leicester fell down the table inexorably and no one could get it together to stop the slide. Look at Wasps. I like the way they play, but do they, or any other side, have forwards who can compete with Saracens and Exeter? They may think they do on paper, but they do not deliver on the pitch. You need ten good, hard forwards who produce week in week out to do that.

In terms of absolute achievement Saracens went into this season’s Premiership final well ahead of Exeter, not least because they have won the European Cup three times whereas the Chiefs and have yet to get on the winners rostrum.

However, I do not see either side slowing down in the near future, although I expect to see Gloucester, Northampton and Harlequins challenging them more next season.

What both Saracens and Exeter do is to improve players, and it is a mind-set that becomes ingrained. I can remember when Jamie George was behind John Smit and Schalk Brits before he made the big breakthrough.

Players join Saracens and Exeter to get better, and, for instance, I am sure that Elliot Daly will improve in the same way that Liam Williams has since he joined the club. Being surrounded by better players makes a difference – and at the best clubs it is the players who set the standard.

JEREMY GUSCOTT / Photo: Getty Images

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