Next weekend the leagues in Europe are temporarily suspended (except for Zebre and Glasgow) as the European Champions Cup reaches the quarter-final stage. Scots will be involved with several teams but few have a better chance to get their mitts on the silverware than Duncan Taylor. His Saracens team have arguably inherited Clermont’s mantle as the best club never to have won the European Cup.
They reached the final in May, 2014 where they ran into a legend of the game who was not going to fumble his lines on his European swansong. Jonny Wilkinson scored 13 points that day as Toulon ran out 23-6 winners against the London side in what was then known as the Millennium Stadium. Taylor was looking on from the sidelines.
“I was 24th man, I was at the game, I was watching it. I was at the warm up and then I just watched it from the stands,” he recalls. “I’d probably rather be 24th man than not be involved at all.”
Taylor was the stand-out Scot in the recent Six Nations, alongside Stuart Hogg, named in several prospective Lions XVs after scoring two tries in four starts on top of that try-saving tackle on Tom James, which echoed a similar effort by Ugo Monye who came out of a different dimension to prevent Thom Evans touching down at Twickenham in 2009.
Not bad going for a player whose circuitous path to the top was less trodden than most. Taylor has played the game since his father Colin took him to Royal High School minis aged five or six, but as the peripatetic family hopped about the globe, Junior never sufficiently impressed to merit a place in “the system”, the all-important academy structure from which almost every professional player graduates these days.
In one interview Taylor admitted that he repeatedly asked himself, “how the hell did I get here?” and one of the answers to that question is, Mike Hynard. The then Saracens academy manager spotted him playing for Bedford in England’s championship and invited him to try out with the premiership club.
“I’d say I probably did lack a bit of self belief,” Taylor confesses. “I have never been in an academy growing up and I never made the cut for AASE (achieving academic and sporting excellence) or anything like that so actually playing premiership rugby or getting anywhere beyond that… I couldn’t really see it.
“But I got a couple of lucky breaks, getting into Bedford, playing there and then getting into Saracens.
“There was a game that one of the Saracens guys, Mike Hynard, came down to watch. I can’t remember what game it was or whether I did anything remotely good but he asked if I’d like to come to Saracens for a two-month trial.”
So Taylor was never in any academy structure anywhere?
Not even with the Scottish exiles?
“I had a trial to get into the exiles when I was 17 or 18 but nothing ever came of it.”
I guess you have proved them wrong?
“I guess so.”
The Scotland centre is languid and undemonstrative. He used to sport dreadlocks at Bedford and when explaining why he did away with them Taylor runs through various arguments before landing on what you suspect is the key, “and I looked like an idiot”.
One insider tags him as the most laid-back character in the entire Scotland squad although he denies the charge, arguing instead that he just masks the nerves a little better than most, hiding behind a front.
Taylor also hid his talent for years but his blend of perspiration and aspiration has long been recognised at Saracens and was recently rewarded with a multi-year contract extension. Club coach Mark McCall called the Scot the most underrated player in the place and backs coach Kevin Sorrell added: “He’s called Super Dunc for a reason”.
Fellow Scot and Saracen Kelly Brown had this to say of the centre: “His work rate is amazing… the GPS monitors show he is consistently the player who covers the most ground. He can play anywhere in the back line outside ten and that’s a handy character to have in any squad.”
Saracens certainly think so. Taylor has appeared 81 times for the club since signing on for the 2011-12 season. He helped them to the Premiership title last time out and he has played his part in Saracens emerging unbeaten from the group stage of the Champions Cup as top seeds with 28 from a possible 30 points.
No English club has won Europe’s big prize since 2007 when Wasps beat Leicester, but Saracens are now favourites to end the long wait for a European Cup winner from the Aviva ranks.
They do things a little differently. Most clubs ban skiing, Saracens pay their players to go, as I discovered a few years back. Calling Taylor’s mobile mid-season, he answered it on the slopes, in the middle of a club jolly.
“It’s the culture that has been created over the last six years or so at the club,” says Taylor by way of explaining Saracens’ success. “It’s been massive. Everyone buys into that culture and makes a real difference. I think we are all good mates on and off the field and we are all playing for each other and in these close games that can make the difference between winning and losing.
“The philosophy is that they treat us unbelievably well and in return we work unbelievably hard and that seems to have worked over the last few years. We give everything we have to them and in return we get treated very well. We have had this culture for six years or so that everyone fights so hard to protect. The older guys that are moving on are still pushing for that culture to be instilled in the younger guys coming through and everyone thrives on it and works and forges that culture and lives by it. It is a really good enjoyable vibe that’s there.”
Saracens have backers with deep pockets and a wonderfully talented squad that is chock full of English players with confidence pulsing through their veins after that Grand Slam.
The club tops the Aviva Premeriship and if they haven’t scored as many tries as some of their rivals that won’t bother them unduly as they go in search of a domestic/European double.
Two years ago they came a distant second to Toulon, so is this Saracens squad better equipped to cope with the atmosphere at the very apex of European club rugby these days should they get to a second final?
“I think we have learned a lot from being in these finals, being in these situations in the past,” Taylor says. “We now have even more depth to our squad. I am seeing boys playing really well and we have a lot more experience in the players that we’ve got; a lot of England internationals have really come on leaps and bounds this season.”
And so has at least one Scot.