THROUGH THEIR EYES: Saracens 13 Saints 27 - GJ van Velze

It is now exactly seven years since an unfancied Saints team stormed past Saracens at Allianz Park in a memorable Premiership play-off semi-final.

By Tom Vickers
Tuesday, 12th May 2020, 12:06 pm
GJ van Velze dived over for a crucial 58th-minute score for Saints at Saracens in May 2013
GJ van Velze dived over for a crucial 58th-minute score for Saints at Saracens in May 2013

Under the ‘Why Not Us?’ banner they placed in the away dressing room that afternoon, Jim Mallinder’s underdogs bit back.

Saracens were expected to cruise to the final at Twickenham, but Saints had other ideas, racing out of the blocks and putting real pressure on their table-topping hosts.

Brian Mujati and Jamie Elliott scored first-half tries as Saints romped to a 17-0 lead at the break.

GJ van Velze on the charge at Allianz Park

Sarries, who topped the table and had never lost at Allianz Park, threatened a comeback with two Owen Farrell penalties and Duncan Taylor’s score.

But GJ van Velze touched down and Stephen Myler added a penalty to secure a 27-13 win for Saints.

It was a sensational day and one that will live long in the memory of any Saints fan who witnessed it.

But how was it for the players?

GJ van Velze, Dylan Hartley and Lee Dickson were all smiles after Saints stunned Saracens

We spoke to South African No.8 Van Velze, a 47th minute replacement that day, to get his recollections of an afternoon that was one of the undoubted highlights of his Saints career, which spanned two seasons between 2012 and 2014 and included 31 appearances.

Q: What was the build-up to the game like?

A: Something that stands out for me in that week was that I rolled my ankle quite badly in training and didn’t finish training on the Wednesday. I didn’t do captain’s run and only watched it to make sure I was fit for the Saturday. The injury was in the back of my mind, going into that game and at least I was only on the bench - I was never going to play the full 80 minutes. But then I’ve always liked playing against Saracens, whether at Saints or Worcester, because they was always a strong South African contingent and I’ve made some good friends over there so every game we played against them I always enjoyed. It was always a tough challenge and always good to play against them. One thing that drove me and gave me a bit of fight that week was the fact it was possibly going to be Brian and Soane’s last game for Saints. It was always in the back of my mind because Mooj helped me quite a little bit. We were always going to play towards our strengths.

Q: What was said in the dressing room before the game?

A: I can’t remember too much of what was said prior to the game. I don’t think it was anything abnormal. I know the ‘Why Not Us?’ banner was up but I can’t tell you where that originated from. What I did find really interesting from my first year of being in the Premiership, and especially at a club like Saints - a very proud club and title contenders most seasons - was that we lost a couple of games at home in November and there was a lot of talk about how poorly the season was going. We were very sporadic during that season but we always managed to play well when there was a lot of pressure on us. For me, that comes down to great leadership, which we had from Dylan (Hartley) but we also had a lot of international players like Ben Foden and Lee Dickson. We also had a great lineout leader, Christian Day, who took a lot of responsibility. Lee Dickson was never five per cent off his game and was always there. We also had a great group of players who weren’t internationals but regularly played well, like myself, James Wilson and there was a lot of X factor like Samu Manoa, George Pisi and Soane. We had experience of people like Phil Dowson and Calum Clark and Tom Wood, a great leader. We knew what our strengths were and we could play different styles, not just what everyone knew us for, which was mauling. We had the ability to test Saracens in other aspects.

Q: How confident were you that you could win?

A: We were pretty confident because we had some big characters in the team which helped. When you’re inexperienced in the Premiership, you take a lot of confidence from people around you. It was quite a calm setup so we were always very quietly confident because we knew what we were capable of. We weren’t able to string 10 wins in a row together, but we made big upsets like the Ulster game away. It was a big upset away from home so we had the ability to play well away from home. I remember my first ever Prem game was Gloucester away and we managed to get a victory there as well so we had the ability to go and take big scalps on the road. It was a one-off as well and we had Mooj and Soane and the possibility of their last game so it added a little to the game. I would say we were always quietly very confident.

Q: What was said at half-time?

A: On that day, we defended extremely well and they made some mistakes. We were 17-0 up at half-time and that gave us a lot of confidence. I went into the bathroom quickly at half-time and when I came back and was about to run out on the pitch, Alan Dickens stopped me and said ‘you don’t want to go out onto the pitch like that!’. Obviously I didn’t really get any of the humour in my first 12 months at the club and I thought he was trying to make a joke to me. I was like ‘what do you mean, I need to go out and warm up’ but as I looked down I had toilet paper stuck to my boots so I’m very lucky he saved me from being a rugby player who ran out onto the pitch with toilet paper stuck to his boot. That’s all I can really remember about half-time.

Q: How did it feel to score the try?

A: I have not had a lot of experience to coming off the bench and even now I find it difficult because you’ve almost got to warm up twice and hope you get on not too long after half-time. I would have done a warm-up myself and in that corner where I scored the try I saw my agent (Christian Abt) who was sat in the corner so I knew he was there and he played a big part in bringing me over to England because I was very Afrikaans and still am. I didn’t speak a lot of English when I came over and it was a massive move for me to leave everything and everyone behind. It was always just going to be two years to come over and experience something different before going back to South Africa. Here I am now, talking to you almost eight years later and I’m in England. My move to Northampton was a massive thing and it made me a much stronger person getting through all the challenges like language, humour and being away from home from loved ones and the fact I was able to score that try in front of Christian was massive because he had a big part in bringing me over. It also meant my girlfriend at the time - now my wife - and my parents were able to fly over for the final. It was never the plan but the fact we made it there gave them the chance to come over and support me. Even though it was only for a week, it was great for them to experience all that at Twickenham and it was a special two weeks for me.

Q: How was the atmosphere on the pitch?

A: It was my first time playing on the articificial pitch there and one of the first times I really appreciated the travelling support because it was my first Prem season and I never knew fans would travel that much, but when the final whistle blew and we walked around, I understood how many fans had made the journey down from Northampton. I know it was a big event, a Premiership semi-final away to Saracens, but it’s one thing I’ll never forget.

Q: What were the celebrations like?

A: The celebrations weren’t massive. It was quite interesting because we had a weekend off between the semi-final and final. We got back on the bus and had our first end-of-year do on the Tuesday and I remember Jim Mallinder singing his song in the changing room. It was the first time I’d ever experienced it, which was great fun. Saracens had organised a special game for John Smit to retire and on the Wednesday night they played a Barbarians team in the city of London and I was actually picked to play in that game but then obviously I wasn’t available any more because we made the final. We had our do on the Tuesday and I went down to London on the Wednesday to see friends and see John Smit in his final game so I actually spent a lot of time with the Saracens players on the Wednesday after the semi-final and I quietly enjoyed seeing how tough it was for them because they all thought they were going to win. I spoke to Ernst Joubert and Schalk Brits and Jacques Burger, all these South African lads, and I was the only one not from Saracens so I got quite a lot of respect from them. I spoke quite a lot with Paul Gustard, who was their defence coach. I look back at it fondly and I learned so much from that time. I enjoyed playing for Saints, whether it was away or at home because it’s a special club, a special place and even now, when I play for Worcester at Franklin’s Gardens, I think it’s my favourite spot. You’ve got a crowd that is very diverse. It’s a great stadium and pitch and I’ve made some friends that will last a lifetime so I can only be grateful for my time at Northampton.