Saracens’ centre Duncan Taylor has the reputation of being the most laid-back character in any dressing room and all the evidence bears this out. We end up speaking one day later than scheduled because on the due date the Scotland international returned from training and fell fast asleep on the sofa for a couple of hours.
But even Taylor’s famous sang froid has been tested over the last ten months or so; in fact, ever since he limped out of Scotland’s tour to Japan last summer with a hamstring injury. He probably envisaged being back in time for the start of the season and he was almost right – it was only the season he got wrong because this one has largely passed him by.
After recovering from that hamstring tear in Japan, Taylor played 22 minutes of rugby before undergoing not one but two ankle surgeries. He returned to league action on 7 January, only to suffer a serious concussion. When he finally made it back on to the field, he tweaked the original hamstring again. After emerging unscathed from 24 minutes of rugby against Bath last Sunday he can be forgiven for celebrating.
“I felt like I’d just won the World Cup!” he says with obvious relief. “Considering I have only played about three games I have taken a fair few knocks.”
He starts this afternoon’s Champions Cup quarter-final against Glasgow on the substitutes’ bench so, I ask him, is there any possibility that Saracens might underestimate the Warriors?
“No. I don’t think there is any chance of that happening,” he replies, knocking the suggestion clean out of the ground. “They [Glasgow] have been a class team this year. They have had some massive wins and we respect how good they are. They have some brilliant players and I am lucky enough to play with a lot of those [Glasgow] boys; the talent throughout that team is ridiculous.
“There is no chance of underestimating them, we know just how good they are and we are making sure that we leave no stone unturned this week”.
“Fair play to Glasgow,” says Taylor as he moves on to the Leicester match at Welford Road. “It was a game where everything from their set piece to their counter-attack in the wide channels, everything they were touching, was turning to gold and they all played to well. We watched that game; like I said, we haven’t left any stone unturned.”
He was the find of last year’s Six Nations when he scored two tries and saved another with that epic cover tackle on flying Welsh winger Tom James, but Taylor was reduced to the role of spectator this season and it is not something that comes naturally to him.
“I wanted to be up in camp and I wanted to be training with them [Scotland],” says Taylor. “You know the vibe in the Six Nations is massive. It’s something to look forward to every year so having to sit and watch was very tough but I was proud of the way the boys played this year. They proved a lot again about the spirit in the squad and we were just unlucky that a few results went against us or we could have finished second.
“I really struggle, whether it’s Saracens or Scotland, I really struggle watching them play when you can’t have any effect on it. It’s tough. I threw things at the TV and stuff like that but other than that it’s been a tough season mentally really because it’s been setback after setback. It’s not like I was out for a couple of months and then back. I was out for a couple of months and then out for another couple of months.
“So it’s been frustrating in that sense but I have been lucky enough to be surrounded by a few guys who are in a similar boat, or a worse boat than I am. We have really come together, the injured crew this year, and helped each other out and that has made a massive difference to our mental state, just being there for each other.”
He name checks flanker Will Fraser and the England trio of George Kruis and Billy and Mako Vunipola, with the brothers back in harness for today’s game, as is Taylor who is a substitute despite limited game time. With Saracens close to full strength and unbeaten in Europe in two years, the home team will start as firm favourites.
It should be a classic contrast in styles. Glasgow have weapons in the wide channels where they will look to ask defensive questions of Chris Ashton, who has been known to pick the wrong answer in the past, and they will move Alex Goode around the field because the full-back is not the quickest.
But for their backs to do their stuff Glasgow need front-foot ball and Saracens hang their hat on their aggressive defence, which also creates most of their attacking opportunities as happened last Sunday. Taylor’s defensive speed off the line allowed him to intercept a Bath pass for Chris Ashton to score the eighth and final try.
It was textbook Saracens, who may not bring as much sparkle as the Warriors but for physical, pragmatic efficiency there is no-one to touch them. They kick for position, chase hard and press the opposition into making a mistake or giving the ball back cheaply. They maul, drive, carry and they do all three things relentlessly.
They have good players and a few great ones but when asked what sets Sarries apart from the chasing pack Taylor does not point to players but to a state of mind.
“We’ve just got a real want and a real dedication to work for each other,” he replies. “In these games where the smallest of margins make the biggest difference, we are all aware that you have to give your all and our work rate has to be through the roof.
“We’ve got unbelievable talent and unbelievable skill in the team and you can match that with an unbelievable work ethic and so we can really push on.”
On a personal level Taylor insists that he has given up on the Lions dream although he concedes he’d have had a shout if he’d managed to string a couple of Six Nations performances together. Still, a decent showing in the final rounds of Europe won’t hurt him and the midfielder confirms he is focusing solely on Saracens as they attempt the double double… winning both the domestic league and the European Champions Cup for the second successive year.
They have hit their stride with ominous timing, wiping the floor with Bath last Sunday, and Taylor insists there is more to come.
“I don’t think we played particularly great, especially in the first half of that game. Our defence was good but we made a lot of errors. It was a funny old game, we won by 50 points but we all felt there was more in us.”
Seeing someone of his ability among Saracens’ substitutes only underlines the magnitude of Glasgow’s task today and, no matter how laid back he is, Taylor is unlikely to fall asleep at the wheel this afternoon.