Saracens kicked off the week leading into their second European Champions Cup final by announcing their players’ player of the season, a gilt-edged honour considering the club have just finished top of the Premiership, they are the reigning champions now chasing a league and European double, and they are chock-full of England’s Grand Slam winners: George Kruis, Maro Itoje, Mako and Billy Vunipola, Jamie George, Owen Farrell and Alex Goode. So the winner was… a proud Scotsman born in Northampton.
Step forward Duncan Taylor, aka “Super Dunc”, aka “The Long Back”. Why “The Long Back”? “Because of the abnormal length of his back,” says Brad Barritt, Taylor’s fellow centre and the some-time Saracens captain. Okay, fair enough. And, er, ‘Super Dunc’? “That’s self-explanatory, too,” Barritt replies. “Dunc’s had a fantastic season, and he’s benefited hugely from being injury-free since he missed the World Cup last autumn.
He’s a gifted runner, his understanding of the game is second to none, and he really rolls up his sleeves and does the hard graft, too.”
It is true Saracens’ England players were unavailable throughout the eight weeks of the Six Nations Championship in February and March, and maybe that helped the 26-year-old Taylor get the award last Saturday. Yet that was the period when Taylor’s bespoke service to club and country was doubly meritorious. He turned in stellar performances for Scotland – including tries against Wales and France plus arguably the defensive moment of the Six Nations when he chased down the Welsh wing Tom James in Cardiff – while an agreement with the Scots meant he also turned out for Saracens on fallow weekends when the England men had their feet up. With Taylor playing, Sarries picked up nine points in Premiership matches with Bath, Gloucester and Northampton, helping secure the home play-off semi-final against Leicester on 21 May which follows tomorrow’s big European date with Racing 92 in Lyon.
While Taylor is modest about “that” tackle in the Millennium Stadium, it bears a re-run. James picked up a loose ball inside his 22 and was haring along the left touchline when Taylor – long-legged, powerful and unremitting – caught him 10 metres from the Scotland goalline. If the great Bill McLaren had been around to commentate, the phrase “crack of doom” would surely have been deployed. “I felt like I had the angle and, if I bolted, I had a chance of catching him, and I just went for it as hard as I could,” Taylor says. “I have worked with our conditioning guys to make sure my hamstrings can withstand running as strong as I can.”
A gift for endurance is indicated by Taylor once holding the UK’s third-best time for the 3,000 metres in his under-13s age group, running for Milton Keynes. “I could have been Mo Farah if I’d stuck to it,” he says, tongue in cheek. All Taylor’s grandparents, parents and siblings are Scottish-born but his dad Colin moved around with work, hence Duncan’s birthplace. Then his family spent three years in Sydney, he played rugby at the Garigal club and had serious thoughts of staying down under, to do a carpentry apprenticeship, live in a mate’s garage and enjoy the beach and the barbecues. But his mum insisted the 16-year-old Taylor return to England to finish school, and he brought with him a full-on surfer’s look, topped off by matted dreadlocks. “I was in the salt water a lot and didn’t wash my hair for about two or three years, and ended up looking like a muppet. You look back and think ‘what the hell were you doing?’”
The muppet look didn’t stop Saracens being impressed by Taylor when he played against them for Bedford in pre-season, in 2011. He’d had no age-grade representative rugby or academy tutoring, yet in the hands of Sarries coaches Kevin Sorrell and Joe Shaw, as well as talented team-mates, he has thrived. Taylor was on the bench for the losing European final against Toulon in Cardiff in 2014. Saracens lost the Premiership final, too.
But last year was different. Taylor and Barritt were the starting centres in the Premiership-final hammering of Bath, when everything clicked. “I’ve had a run free of injuries, and I’ve felt comfortable this season, mostly playing at 13,” Taylor says. “When you have been to finals before, it becomes known territory. And that can only build your confidence, knowing what it takes to win.”