Thursday, 7 June 2018

My farewell to three members of our Sarries Family

Chris Wyles, Schalk Brits, Nathan Earle (and our trophy!)

I want to talk today about 3 special men who all played headline roles in our recent title winning match - a brace of tries for Chris Wyles, a last minute victory-sealing score for Nathan Earle, and, um, well, a yellow card for Schalk Brits!! (I think you were jinxed by Ali Eykyn on the BT commentary with that one!) 

Classy bloke that Wayne Barnes!

But this piece isn't about the memorable tries, obscenely good offloads or magnificent tackles, it's about the three individuals and the positive impact they have had on my life over the past few years.

The thing that makes Saracens so special is the values the club adheres to: Discipline, Honesty, Work Rate, Humility – I love the concept of these values so much that I had the words engraved on a necklace last Christmas! But one that’s missing from the list is a value that these three guys have in spades – generosity of spirit.

Most, if not all, of the team are kind, genuine, intelligent guys, but not all of them are able to be generous with their time and energy; but these three have always (to me at least) been wonderfully warm and welcoming, offering me far more than I expected and leaving me with memories that I shall long treasure.

Thanks for the memories guys, savour this one for a long time!

Chris Wyles is a rarity in this world - an American who is wonderfully humble, supremely talented and a true gentleman; the kind of guy who is passionate without being in your face, his enthusiasm for his work being evident in his actions as well as his words.

Last home game of the season 2016; meet the players!
I missed the initial creation of the Wolfpack lager brand, by the time I started attending matches at Allianz Park the bus was an established feature of the ground, but it is evident that a lot of hard work and commitment went into building something really worthwhile, that Chris and Alistair didn’t just do the whole thing on the fly and expect others to support it just because it was their project.

I love that the club seems so invested in ensuring our guys have future careers after they (have to) retire from the beautiful game; match days now involve a visit to Brad’s “Tiki Tonga Coffee” stand next to the Wolfpack bus, seeing Jamie’s “Carter and George” doing a pop up physio clinic on the plaza across from Mike Ellery’s new cocktail company “Raw Spirit” – although I’m not quite sure where in the ground would be best to put Ben Spencer and Henry Taylor’s brilliant “99 Sap Designs” furniture business . . . . 

I have a lot of wonderful memories from Chris Wyles' time at Sarries, most related to his huge enthusiasm for the game and genuine friendliness - from seeing him give away a full pint of Wolfpack to someone who said they were about to go buy one to watching him let fans try on his latest medal at Twickenham just a few weeks ago.

But I think the one moment that stands out more than any other is watching him make his speech on top of the bus after the Bath game a few weeks before season end, it was his leaving do being done on his terms: beer and mates in glorious sunshine! His words made me well up as I listened and I felt so proud to have been even a small part of a journey that clearly meant so much to him.
Mr Wolfpack giving his farewell speech!

Seeing him later I asked him to sign the t-shirt I'd bought at the Talen Stadium in Philadelphia, I've never really got that into getting players to sign things (outside of my 30 challenge scrapbook) but I wanted my favourite memento of that weekend in the USA to be signed by our very own Captain America, the memory of him wandering JFK departures looking for a burrito always brings a smile to my face!
My only signed piece of clothing to date!

Of course thinking of that evening in the airport brings to mind the truly joyous memory of seeing the effervescent Schalk Brits desperately trying to give away McDonald's fries before boarding the plane – despite being told by the airline staff that he could take them on board with him!

I think by now that a lot of people have heard Schalk's tale of why he interacts so passionately with fans, the disappointment he suffered as a young boy staying with him into his professional career leading to the promise to never let one of his fans down like that.
Introducing my sister to the smiliest man in town!
To me, the fact that he remains so committed to this concept is wonderful. He greets people with such warmth and excitement that it feels, for a moment, that you're his best friend and he's so happy to see you. I don't know if he ever remembers me from one meeting to the next, I think in the moment he remembers my face and things I've said before/places I've talked to him, but I doubt that asked an hour later he would be able to recall my name or anything particular about me.

And thats okay! He's a professional athlete (retired) who has meet thousands of people over the course of his career, all of whom wanted something from him (time, conversation, a photo, a favour) and he can't possibly be expected to retain all of that - if I had a pound for every time a player or staff member had called me "mate", “love” or "darling" I'd be able to afford one of the posh seats at Allianz Park!

And yet Schalla still gives you this incredible feeling of specialness when his eyes light up and that wonderful smile bursts out, a moment when you really feel like he's happy to see you, wants to talk to you. 

I've got so many brilliant memories thanks to Schalk Brits and his amazing personality; hugs and smiles galore, the Curry and Chat goodbye event, the wonderful photograph taken on my 30th birthday of him giving me a hug outside the Foundation takeover of Nandos, his signature underneath said photo in my scrapbook when he complained that my caption said "smiliest guy in rugby" when in his opinion it should have been "sexiest"!

A 30th Birthday a girl can only dream of!

But I think my all-time favourite memory has to be the one that is unique to me, that moment in JFK departures seeing Schalla’s eyes light up as he recognised me (as a Sarries fan that is), getting to hear the guys moan about how ling the McDonalds queue was and how much time security took made them so much more relatable to me! 

As a non-sporting doing person I‘ve struggled at times to relate to the players beyond my basic understanding of coaching, training and team psychology (thanks Dad!) so getting to see some of my favourite people in the most normal of situations, reacting exactly as I do was brilliant!

I didn't ever get to know Nathan Earle as well as the other two, and I regret that as I have met the compassionate caring person lurking beneath that easy smile and sprinter pace! I do have a lovely picture with him however that was taken on my 30th birthday inside the Nandos Takeover! 
Nandos Takeover 2017
Obviously when a player retires from the sport (as the other two gentlemen talked about in this post are) the celebrations and discussions around the person’s time at the club very different to when a player is leaving for a rival as a strategic career move.

It’s not the first time we’ve had a player leave us for another club, Ashy departed for Toulon last summer and had a song and dance quite literally made about it (some of Bazz’s finest work!) and yet Nathan seems to have been rather pushed to one side and forgotten about during the last few weeks of the season as all the attention was laser focussed on Schalla and Chris, and that just seems a tad unfair to me.

After the Bedford Blues match pre-season 2017 
Yes, he hasn’t given as many years’ service to Saracens as the retirees but Nathan has still been a fantastic team player and a brilliant ambassador to the club; his move is not a calculated ploy for more money or fame as far as I can tell but a necessary change in order to grow as a player and to improve his chances of making the RWC2019 squad – a dream that surely must be understood to trump all else at this stage of the World Cup cycle and his own career?

Representing your country at the World Cup must always be the pinnacle a player aspires to, above all accolades and trophies won at club level – domestic or European. The honour of that jersey, that cap, that call up is more than most of us could ever truly understand; I don’t claim to fully get it myself as I am not a professional athlete, I can only try to relate the concept to my own life and career and think what it would mean to me to be chosen above all others to fight for the chance to be called the best in the world.

And that’s one of the many reasons that I will not now, nor ever, begrudge a player moving clubs to further their chances of international success. The choice Nathan has made can’t have been easy for him but he is doing it because it needs to be done, Sarries are a fantastic club but they can’t offer him the opportunities he needs to get on Eddie Jones’ speed dial list.
Even in an uncapped Baabaas game, its a huge honour to wear the Rose!
It was back in March when I encountered the best side of Nathan; I was (ironically for this post) at the Schalk Brits testimonial dinner and I'd had an absolutely awful time for the first part of the evening - the venue was not remotely autistic friendly (high ceiling, all metal and wood, dim lighting with red spotlights etc!) and I was an individual on a table full of people I didn't know, with my back to the stage with not a clue what was going to be happening and feeling incredibly unsettled!

Cue the ‘wobbling on the edge of meltdown’ that led to me hiding out in the corridor outside the main hall, pacing back and forth muttering to myself trying to get a grip on my spiralling panic. I had been back and forth to the corridor a few times during the evening, managing to stay in my seat for the starter and main course (whilst probably getting through more than my fair share of the white wine on the table!) but had bailed to my refuge again before the dessert came round, once again fleeing the bizarre and confusing experience of a sit down dinner where people where wandering about all over the place holding conversations standing between people who were seated at tables eating!

The corridor wasn’t much better in terms of the sensory experience as it had high traffic levels due to being the only access route to the ladies, gents, stairs and lift! Most people had walked straight by me, a few had tried to ask if I was only but they were strangers to me so I had defaulted to my "I'm fine" response and they quickly moved away, probably relieved. 

Nathan spotted me as he was leaving the event and came over to speak to me directly, I don’t know if he recognised me then as someone he’d seen before at games, or even remembered me from being at the England v Baabaas match he’d played in at Twickenham last summer (we’d called him, Nick and Wiggy over for a group ‘Sarries’ photo after the match) but his concern for me was evident straight away.

His concern for me was clear as he asked if I was okay and if there was anything I needed that would help. At this point my mind had been tumbling through the void, free-falling back into that awful place I was in after the final in Edinburgh, but hearing such genuine concern for me from a player I admired allowed me to focus my mind back to "rugby mode" pulling on all the hard-earned experience of away games and losses to drag to the forefront my ability to get control of my panic and cope.

That simple act of direct kindness was so vital in enabling me to rescue my evening, the fact that he so easily accepted my response when I told him I was struggling because of being autistic and how the venue was affecting me. That short conversation left me able to finish up with a joke about needing some more wine and a tentative smile that I was able to turn into a real one before the event was over.

But more than just the kindness of that night, when I saw him at Allianz a few weeks later he recognised me straight away and asked how I was and if I'd enjoyed the rest of the night. We had a great chat about things that day, talking about him moving on to Quins and the need for change sometimes. I told him at the time that he has to do what’s right for him and his career, while he worried about being able to maintain the Quins victory record against Sarries at the Stoop!

I’ll be gutted to see him play in a Quins shirt next season (although come internationals it’ll be nice to know another team is losing one of their stars to even the field a bit!) but I’m  so very glad that he was able to sign off from his time at Sarries scoring our final try to win back our Premiership title!! 
Going out in style with one hell of a goodbye gift to us!

So, in conclusion I metaphorically raise my glass and toast;

To Chris Wyles, our Born In The USA superstar who’s brilliance on the pitch will surely be matched by the growth of his wonderful Wolfpack brand – may the pack always go to work for you!

To Schalk Brits, the never grow up Peter Pan who reinvented what it means to be a hooker – may your family forever keep you young and may the sun of your SA homeland be as bright as your smile and more welcoming than the drizzle of an away game up north!

To Nathan Earle, the youth and promise of tomorrow with a heart as big as his smile – may your travels take you far and wide, and may we meet again in battle on the hallowed turfs, another wolf-raised rose, you’ll always be one of the family, go well my friend!


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