The Saracens Way: Will Fraser refuses to be bitter despite early retirement
For much of his career, Will Fraser was tipped to be England’s first-choice openside flanker.
A couple of years ago, you did not have to look hard to find column inches suggesting that by now the Saracens flanker would — if he could just get over his injury troubles — have nailed down the national team's No7 shirt.
Twice he was set to go on summer tours with England — to Argentina in 2013 and New Zealand a year later — and twice he found himself on the surgeon’s table instead.
Last summer any chance of finally pulling on the Red Rose again was ended when, following an eighth surgery, he was told unequivocally that there was no way back.
At the age of just 27, Fraser was forced into retirement. You could forgive him for feeling a little sore about the sport that has taken such a toll on his body.
Not that you need to.
“When you retire you become a little bit philosophical about everything and though my career was cut short I don’t have any regrets,” Fraser, now 28, told City A.M.
“I would have given everything to play for England. But I’ve got a European and Premiership medal on my wall. I’ve played with and against some of the best players in the world.
“I get asked a lot about it now because injury is such a hot topic in rugby at the moment and I guess I’m a case study on the issue. They want my opinion on it.
“They think I’m going to be bitter. I’ve been asked a few times: ‘Do you loathe the game for what it’s done to you?’. But how can you hate something you love doing? It’s not possible.”
Indeed, post-retirement Fraser has not wallowed but thrown himself into spreading the Saracens gospel, relaying lessons learned from a one-club career that developed in tandem with his team’s transformation from middling Premiership side into all-conquering European giants.
Fraser never got to fulfil his international ambitions due to persistent injury problems
The Watford-born former back-rower is heading up The Saracens Way programme, a project offering organisations ranging from Feltham Prison to CME Group to Watford's academy insights into the club’s winning culture and workshops on how to implement it themselves.
“It’s how Saracens have gone from a chronically underachieving organisation to double-European, triple Premiership champions,” he says.
Fraser is in as good a position as anyone to explain. He has been with Saracens since he was 14 and is a member of its “Class of 2008” — the group of academy graduates who became first team regulars together and includes Owen Farrell, Jamie George, Jackson Wray and George Kruis.
Their graduation to the first team coincided with the arrival of head coach Brendan Venter and what is now referred to in the club as “the revolution”.
Fraser (c) leads the celebrations after 2016's European Champions Cup triumph (Source: Getty)
Owner and chairman Nigel Wray pinpoints it as the moment Saracens developed a continuous culture that would transcend any single season’s objectives but ultimately lead to multi-year success.
“It was very black and white,” says Fraser.
“I joined the academy at 14 and then signed full-time after school. Up until 2009, we’d had 11 directors of rugby in 10 years. We hadn’t won anything; we were mid-to-lower table consistently.
“We were kids, 18, 19 and like sponges to this new concept. Our whole adult lives have been embedded in this Saracens culture.”
That culture is based around four fundamental values — honesty, work rate, discipline and humility — and the collectively agreed-upon behaviours required to live them out.
Fraser says that underlying identity held firm after the heartbreak of back-to-back Premiership and European Cup final defeats in 2014 and the heady heights of winning the double two years later.
Eight years after “graduation”, Kruis, Farrell, George, Wray and Fraser were all on the pitch to lift the trophy together.
“There was a minute and a half left and I was crying for the whole thing,” says Fraser. “I’m running around the pitch, doing line-outs and I’ve got tears running down my face.”
That intense bond goes some way to explaining why Saracens were so supportive of Fraser throughout his neck injury problems — “If I’d been with any other club they probably would have released me because I was probably the worst going in terms of return on investment with time on the pitch” — and the player himself never gave up until he had no choice.
“I had a lot of people ask me: ‘How can you keep going to training so upbeat despite being injured?’,” he says.
“It’s because I get to see my best mates every day. That’s why I genuinely believe the Saracens Way can translate to any organisation and can have a huge impact not only on performance but on the enjoyment and happiness of its people.
“If you can create an environment like that, employee retention and engagement is going to be through the roof. That’s why we’ve had so many academy boys come through the first team.
“You want to be part of the journey.”
For more information on the Saracens Way programme, contact [email protected]