"Nice shirt mate!" he says, and trots out to train. It's only Michael Lynagh, 72-test Wallaby legend, World Cup winner and leading points scorer in International rugby history at the time. To say I was a little taken aback is an understatement. However, the best was yet to come...
It was late June, so the weather was still warm and sunny as we started my first session with a professional team. (I hadn't signed a contract yet, so I was effectively a competition winner!) After a quick warm-up, the coaches brought the squad together. There were around 30 players in the squad at that time, the majority of which were first-teamers from the previous year and who had been at the club for a long time. Guys like Mike Lynagh, Paddy Johns (the Irish lock/number 8), Tony Copsey (the Welsh lock) and Kyran Bracken were newcomers, and treated with a little hostility. They were being paid pretty big money to be there, and some of the old-guard were a little resentful. This added spice to the first training drill!
A square was marked out with cones, about 25 metres by 25 metres. Half the squad lined up on one corner and the other half lined up on the opposite corner. One corner was attack, the other defence. The aim of the drill was for the attacking player to beat the defender one-on-one and score at the opposite side of the square. The players went though and there was the usual mix of footwork and straight-forward hard running. Eventually, Lynagh was up to defend. It may have been fixed, or it may not have. Either way, Mike ended up opposite the replacement hooker Charlie Olney. Charlie was about 6 foot tall, and weighed about 16 stone. He had the physique of a body-builder and was the fastest player over 40 metres in the squad at that time. No prizes for guessing his approach to trying to beat the 12-and-a-half stone fly-half - he just took off and ran at him. I think everybody there that day held their breath and winced at what they thought would happen. Here was a highly-paid star, fresh off the plane from the other side of the world. He didn't want to be on this recreation ground in North London having some big bugger trying to run over him. Lynagh chopped him down in a textbook tackle, picked himself up and jogged to the back of the attackers queue as if it was just another day at the office. The crowd went wild!
I think that is where the brief period of success Saracens enjoyed in the late-90's really began. Later that season, we signed the still-great Phillippe Sella and Francois Pienaar to bolster our ranks, but Lynagh was the first big signing. And he immediately showed he was here to play, and not just to top-up his pension.
He prepared as a professional before he was a professional, and he showed what it took to be the best. He would be outside for hours practising goal-kicking when most kickers at the time slotted 20 and were done. He practised drop-kicking restarts of both left and right foot so that he could perfectly disguise which side he was kicking to. He trained as if he were playing a game. All the things we as pros take for grated today, Michael Lynagh was doing in 1996, and probably for years before. His attitude combined perfectly with Sella and Pienaar, who were equally professional in their approach and preparation, to create an environment where those 3 greats of the game were able to have one last moment in the sun. Despite their advancing years, they were still able to dominate games, and this was no more evident than the Tetleys Bitter Cup FInal of 1998. The three of them dismantled Wasps to bring Saracens their first ever piece of silverware. Fittingly, Lynagh and Sella finished their great careers as winners, having both played huge roles in the victory. I am proud and privileged to say I played a small part, and my experience with those giants of the game has had a profound effect on my own career. I owe them a great deal more than they will ever know, and a debt of thanks that I will probably never be able to repay.