Hamilton: Saracens are ready to defend Premiership title - and England stars are raring to go
Jim Hamilton says Saracens are fully motivated as they prepare to kick off their Premiership title defence this weekend – and that England’s returning World Cup players are as keen as anyone to get started.
Sarries won the domestic league in May, lifting the trophy at Twickenham, and they now face the challenge of repeating the feat as they get ready to host Sale Sharks at Allianz Park on Saturday (2pm).
Hamilton is aware that Premier League champions Chelsea have been struggling in that regard, losing four of their opening eight top-flight fixtures and lying 16th in the table, facing questions about their hunger and desire – but Hamilton has no such fears about Saracens.
“I do follow football and you do kind of draw comparisons at certain times – how are Chelsea going to back it up? Are Manchester United going to be a good team this year?” he said.
“We don’t actually know how it’s going to go until the season starts but are we training like we want to be, and is the will and desire there? One hundred per cent. “We all know we’ve got to step it up again because it wasn’t an easy ride last year, there was a little bit of luck along the way and the teams are now a lot better. Sale haven’t lost any players and they’ve clearly had a good pre-season because they’ve looked good.
“We speak a lot about motivation and what motivates us. You’ve almost got to park [last season’s success]. You’ll look back on winning the Premiership and stuff like that more after your career as a player, because it’s tough to get back on the horse.
“It is tough. You’ve got to come in and train, you’ve got to train harder - the microscope’s on and you’re asking me the question: ‘Are Saracens going to be as good this year? Can we win the championship?’
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“We’re the ones in pole position, the ones that people want to beat and that’s a challenge in itself and that’s one we’re really looking forward to.
“Everyone’s so motivated to do well – some of the injured guys who are coming back in as well, and the guys coming back from the World Cup who have clearly had a disappointing time. So the motivation is definitely there.”
Eight Saracens players were named in England’s 31-man squad for the Rugby World Cup, giving the north London side a bigger contingent in the national set-up than any other team.
That was viewed as a boost for the club at the time, but it looks less positive now after the host nation’s early exit.
Hamilton admits his team-mates have been dealt a bitter blow, but he has not seen anything to concern him and suggest that England’s painful elimination will affect Saracens’ start to the season.
“Everyone’s going to be different, some people are going to react psychologically in different ways,” he said. “But the guys who have come in this week – Jamie George, George Kruis and Mako Vunipola – have been absolutely unbelievable and the levels of training have gone up another notch, and that’s with the energy they bring.
“You’ve got to remember these guys grew up with Saracens, they grew up in the academy and they know what the club’s about so they are key players in terms of the culture of the team. That isn’t manufactured, it’s genuine.
“It’s a very close-knit bunch of boys, it’s great having them back and they’ve come back in a positive mindset to do well and kick on this season.
“Is there any danger of a hangover? I don’t think there is, and I don’t think there can be either. The spotlight’s even on them now isn’t it. People are asking ‘now they’re back at their clubs, how are they going to react?’
“To be fair, most of our guys didn’t really play as first-team players. George Kruis only played a little bit, Jamie George only played a bit in the last game, Alex Goode did the same - so these guys want to play rugby again, there’s only so much training you can do.
“I know that having been away with Scotland myself, so these guys want to get back and they want to play. Their last memory at Saracens was winning the championship so the memories here are good.”
Saracens have home advantage for their Premiership opener against Sale Sharks on Saturday, but Hamilton is expecting a tough early test.
“Firstly up front they’re a great team,” he said. “We played them four times last year – twice in the Premiership and twice in the Champions Cup – and we know they’re a tough team. All the games we’ve played against them were really hard.
“They’ve brought in Brian Mujati, who’s a top-class scrummager. At the breakdown, [Daniel] Braid and [David] Seymour are top players and they’ve got a really line-out as well. Then you align that with Danny Cipriani at No10, who’s been playing really well from the footage we’ve seen as well, so they’re a great team. They play with width and they’re a very settled side now so it’s not going to be an easy game at all.”
With Saracens playing on Saturday, Hamilton will be free to watch Sunday’s World Cup quarter-finals – including Scotland’s showdown with Australia.
The 32-year-old forward announced his international retirement after missing out on Scotland’s squad for the tournament, having won 63 caps and played at the 2007 and 2011 World Cups. And, while he hopes his countrymen can spring a surprise this weekend, he fears their opponents will prove too strong.
“That’s the difficult one because you’re talking about my team and also Australia, who are probably the favourites due to their form,” he said.
“The good thing for Scotland is that the pressure’s now off, no-one expects us to win the game. We’ve beaten Australia twice in the last four years so it’s not as if we can’t beat them, but the issue is they’re playing so well. Defensively and in attack they’ve got everything.
“The games Scotland have struggled with are the power games – South Africa and Samoa in terms of the sheer size of the men they’ve played against. Australia look great, I can’t see us turning that over. I’d love to see it happen but if you’re asking me for an honest answer then that’s the answer.”
Whatever happens this weekend, Hamilton believes the World Cup has been a hugely successful showcase for the sport.
“I think one of the big things that has contributed to it has been the weather,” he said. “The level of rugby that has been played has been absolutely exceptional.
“With the way the scrum’s been refereed, for example, and the referees making the ball be played, the games have been significantly more free-flowing.
“The so-called ‘minnows’ – the likes of Namibia, Canada, Georgia and Romania – have done so well and they’ve put on such a show that anyone at any level can now see themselves playing rugby. I take my son to a local club and there’s 60 or 70 kids that are five and under running around and playing.
“Obviously it gets more difficult in the winter months – those are the months I most enjoy - but I think it’s been a great advert for the game.
“Obviously it would have been better to see England go further, getting to the final, because it would have become even more high-profile again. But fair play to the people who have organised it, I think they’ve done a really good job.”