Saracens coach Alex Sanderson says a January start for the Championship is critical for the development of some of his club’s brightest young stars.
While a quick-fire finish to last season’s Premiership enabled the likes of centre Dom Morris, prop Sam Crean, winger Elliott Obatoyinbo, lock Joel Kpoku and flanker Sean Reffell to come to the fore, Sanderson fears their progress is in danger of being stunted.
However, with the government’s funding package being finalised which should allow the Championship to get underway, Sanderson has called for certainty on a start date.
He told The Rugby Paper: “We’re in limbo at the moment but with talk of a Covid vaccine and funding around testing, hopefully things can start moving a bit quicker.
“Our lads are training their nuts off at the moment and we’re hearing January is probable now rather than just possible, but we need some certainty around that.
“There were some pleasant surprises for us last season and because of the frequency of those last nine Premiership games, you had to play the younger boys.
“We’ve always tried to play boys in the past but because we had to periodise the game time for our senior guys, especially with us being in the Champions Cup as well, they got more of a chance this time and proved themselves by winning Premiership games.
“When you look at how guys like Dom Morris, Sam Crean, Sean Reffell, Elliott Obatoyinbo and Joel Kpoku played, we’ve got some really exciting young players there – and the list goes on. Their exposure was brilliant but now we need to carry that on.”
Academy products Cameron Boon, Josh Hallett, Ollie Stonham, Jon Kpoku and Ethan Benson also made Premiership debuts. Sanderson added: “You normally look to put lads into feeder clubs or on dual-registration, but it’ll be a bit different for us this year and a lot of these boys are going to be forming the bulk of our Championship squad instead.
“Our international players have a lot of Test fixtures to play and won’t play much for us anyway, so you just want to back these guys with game time now.
“We could arrange fixtures against local sides who are being Covid tested, but we’ve decided not to go down that avenue because you can waste a lot of energy on eventualities that might not happen.
“We’d like crowds back, too, but the most important thing is to get playing again so we can give all of our players a platform on which they can perform.”
Meanwhile, Sanderson believes Maro Itoje is developing the emotional intelligence to captain the British & Irish Lions on next summer’s tour of South Africa.
With doubts being raised over the ability of veteran lock Alun Wyn Jones to stay the course within a faltering Welsh set-up, Sanderson says there are no limits to what 26-year-old Itoje could achieve as he continues along a path to being the world’s best.
Sanderson said: “You don’t want to put a ceiling on Maro, do you? He keeps coming up with better and better performances and he just keeps progressing while working on his own physique and physicality, which is second to none on his day now.
“We had a chat about leadership at Saracens and who we want to fast-track and Maro’s a brilliant example setter. He’s not a great orator and he doesn’t dominate a changing room at half-time, but Brad Barritt didn’t either and he was a great captain.
“Brad was happy to give Owen Farrell the floor at times and I think Maro’s got the intelligence to realise that he doesn’t need to take everything on himself. He’s more aware of himself now and understands how others work in a team environment.”
Sanderson added: “In a British Lions environment you’ve got a lot of club and international captains around you anyway, so it’s a lot more about tapping into that collective and allowing others to take on leadership while focussing on your own performances.
“Maro’s got the skills and has grown enough as a person, so he definitely has the qualities needed to lead that Lions tour.”