Having been a crucial member of the Saracens squad since his debut in 2008, Jackson Wray has helped the team achieve European Champions Cup success in 2016, 2017 and 2019, as well as the Premiership crown four times in the last seven years. With the Six Nations literally around the corner, we thought it would be the perfect time to catch up with Jackson to hear his views on squad selections by the new England Head Coach, plus what he thinks about teammate Owen Farrell’s recent short spell of suspension. With his contract due to expire at the end of this season, we also discussed his plans for the future, and whether a new club is a potential option.
- Jackson on his head injury in 2022: “It hasn’t changed the way I play”
- On Owen Farrell’s high tackle: “It’s disappointing to see he’s getting all the attention and abuse because he’s the England captain”
- “Who knows why Billy was left out of the squad” for Six Nations
- Wray picks Ireland as Six Nations favourites
- Borthwick will be a success: “He’s brilliant with people, you know exactly where you stand with Steve”
- On his expiring contract: “I definitely can’t see myself playing anywhere else”
AS: At the start of last 2022, you had a pretty awful injury on the pitch and needed surgery for a fractured skull. How has this last year been? Any amendments you’ve had to make to your gameplay?
JW: The skull injury was a really strange one, I remember it pretty vividly. I went into a tackle and unfortunately clashed heads with a teammate. At the time it obviously hurt, but I didn’t think anything of it. I carried on playing and then at the end of the game, it was quite numb and a bit achy which felt a bit strange. It wasn’t like a concussion or anything like that, it just felt like a bone injury of some kind. It was visible as well – a dent just above my left eye. It deteriorated to the point I had to go to the hospital and have a few scans which showed there was also a dent at the top of my skull. From there I saw a consultant who decided it was best to put a steel plate across the area to bring out the fracture. It was about an eight-week injury, maybe a bit more. But now I feel good and don’t really think about it to be honest. It doesn’t affect me at all so I feel really lucky. On the positive side, it hasn’t changed the way I play or even think about the game.
AS: It’s been quite a season so far. In the last few weeks alone, Saracens achieved a last-minute win against Gloucester and a second impressive win against Lyon in the Heineken Cup. There seems to be a real fire in the squad at the moment – what’s the secret to continual motivation?
JW: We’ve had an interesting season so far. We’ve been a bit hot and cold in games and generally in periods across the season. Obviously, we’ve had some brilliant late wins and some great performances in parts. We’re yet to put a performance in for the whole eighty minutes but somehow we’ve managed to pull our game together and do just enough to win. So the weekend at Edinburgh was disappointing, the guys were really disappointed with the performance but again it’s about building and having momentum going towards the end of the season. The motivation is to get to a point and to a performance which we’re proud of and ones that will be enough to do well at the end of the season. It’s the building blocks during the season that we focus on; it’s a long year, and it’s about working hard to improve the game as a whole, in all areas of our play. So that’s our main motivation – to come in every week and get better so that we’re flying at the end of the season. You win trophies in May, you don’t win them on the way but what you do throughout the schedule of play puts you in a good place to be firing come the end of the season.
AS: Owen Farrell recently made the news again following the cited ‘dangerous tackle’ during the win against Gloucester. He’s been handed a short suspension but is clear to play in the Six Nations. What’s your opinion on the controversy? And why do you think he gets so much flack from opposing team’s fans?
JW: Obviously he’s been in the news quite a lot recently and I think it’s very undeserved. He’s played a lot of rugby and made a lot of tackles in his career and we all get them wrong sometimes. Everyone in the game has got one wrong at some point and he just seems to get the brunt of all the media attention. In the same game I was concussed by a shoulder to the chin which didn’t get picked up or looked at at all. So you could ask where the consistency is there. Like I said, we all get them wrong, it’s a fast game, things change at the speed of light in terms of positioning. All we can do is our best to be careful in doing what we do. But playing the game, it’s very difficult and sometimes we don’t quite get them perfect. We need consistency because you can get caught and it doesn’t get picked up and that’s frustrating – for me, I’ve had to miss a couple of weeks because of this last one. It’s disappointing to see he’s getting all the attention and abuse because he’s the England captain when it happens to everyone else and never gets a mention. We need an element of consistency but equally, people need to understand that the game is fast, positions change, body angles change so quickly and these things do happen. He doesn’t do it on purpose. And I think the important thing to understand is that he’s played a lot of rugby and made a couple of mistakes across a long, long period. All we can do is our best to do things in the right way.
AS: The England squad was announced a few days ago. There are a few omissions from previous national squads such as Billy Vunipola, Jack Nowell and Jonny May. What are your thoughts on Borthwick’s first squad selection?
JW: Steve’s squad is an interesting one, it looks like a good squad. Obviously, there are some guys not in there – close to us there’s Billy (Vunipola) and he’s very disappointed in not being selected but it’s about playing well and continuing to play well to get back in there again. Who knows why Billy was left out of the squad. Steve has in his mind the way he wants to play and the way he wants his team, and at the moment this is the squad he thinks is best placed to do that. I think that’s the main thing here – coaches have in their mind the way they want to play and the players that they want and in England, we’ve got a lot of very good players that have been picked and I’m sure his chance will come again and he’ll go in and be brilliant for them like he has been for a long time.
AS: Who in your mind are favourites to win the Six Nations?
JW: Ireland are playing really well at the moment, Leinster are doing well in Europe so I think they’re probably the team that has momentum going into the Six Nations. But again you can’t really look too far away from England as well and the team that Steve’s going to pick. We haven’t seen his team before, we don’t know what’s going to come. The quality of player in the England side will always be there or thereabouts and if they can click and put into play the messages they get from Steve, then they’ve got every chance to go and win. Wales, obviously we’ve got Warren (Gatland) coming in as the new Head Coach and again, they’re going to be a different prospect. He’ll get a brilliant tune out of them and going to the Millennium is never an easy task so I think for Wales, again depending on how they click and how they resonate with the messaging, they could be very good. I think they’re probably the three front runners at the moment and when you chuck in France who I’ve missed out on that list, they can be unbelievably good too. It’s going to be a really good competition this year. France has got some brilliant talent in that squad and if they can come out firing then, they’ll be up there. As it stands though, my favourites, due to the momentum of play, is arguably Ireland. But we will see how Wales and England fit in with the new structure and the new management. And France are very, very dangerous so it’ll be a good one to watch.
AS: Italy has recently had some impressive wins over France and Australia – what do you think their chances are of continuing this success in the Six Nations and who is key to this potential success?
JW: I think Italy always have a real challenge because of the depth of the squad, and if they lose a few games it hits them – this is usually the issue they face. They can put on some brilliant performances but I think the consistency throughout the whole Six Nations has always been a challenge. But they could definitely cause some upsets. When you go over to Italy, it’s a difficult place to play and the fans really get behind them. I wouldn’t be surprised if they had a big win in this competition, but I think consistency-wise you’ve got to look at the other guys.
AS: Succeeding from Eddie Jones, Steve Borthwick has been recently named as the new England Head Coach. He has a very strong history of success at both Saracens and Leicester Tigers, as well as spells in the England and British Lions coaching teams. What do you think his approach will be at a national level compared to how Jones led the team?
JW: I played with Steve from when I was really young and grew up learning from him – the way he does things, his diligence. I think he’s learnt a hell of a lot during the period he’s been at Leicester and I think he’s going to carry that into the England squad. He’s brilliant with people, you know exactly where you stand with Steve and I think that’s a really important aspect of his leadership in that role. I think the players will enjoy the camp atmosphere which is hugely important and as I said before, the talent within the squad and our league in general is so high that if he can bring out the best in the players in that period, I think he has a great chance of doing well. He’s known Owen for a long time, Mako, and everyone else. He’s known us all for a long time and being at Leicester he’s got some great relationships with those guys as well. So I think he’s going to do very well and I look forward to seeing the team and how they change to adapt and approach the Six Nations.
AS: Dan Cole comes back into the squad at the age of 35, going into a World Cup year. How important is it that England have a core group of experienced players to mix alongside the likes of Marcus Smith and Freddie Steward who are still relatively inexperienced in major tournament rugby?
JW: Yeah, crazy! Dan’s unbelievably strong at scrum time – he brings an element of consistency in that area and we know how important a big scrum can be. The upfront battle is huge in the Six Nations and he’s massively experienced at an international level. You can’t underestimate the importance of that and particularly in a World Cup year you need that blend of experience and youth. We’ve got some really exciting young players going into a big tournament so it’s vital you have that blend and I think Dan Cole is very strong in that area. I’m sure he’s going to pass on lots of wisdom in the scrum. The scrum is an area where you learn from experience and that is something he has huge amounts of, so I’m sure he’s going to be a good addition to bring back in.
AS: With much comparison to Owen Farrell, how do you think Marcus Smith will feature in the England squad?
JW: I don’t think you can play with Owen and not learn something. He’s unbelievably experienced at a high-performing level and I think Marcus, every time he interacts with Owen, will learn and grow. The relationship there is crucial and I know that Owen, the way he does things, he’ll be in that camp bringing the best out of everybody, not just Marcus but the rest of the squad. And the impact he has really can’t be understated. But in terms of featuring, it’ll be interesting to see how Steve plays it. Owen is the first name on the team sheet, he drives people, he leads, and having seen it first hand, everything he does brings the best out of the teams he plays in. It could be ten, twelve, Marcus ten, Owen at twelve but again, I think that’s perhaps something they can go to. Whether they start with it or go to that at some point, I think you’ll probably see both featuring at some stage for the Six Nations.
AS: Kevin Sinfield has recently been placed as defence coach for England. He worked most recently in the coaching squad at Leicester Tigers, however his playing career was in rugby league with the hugely successful Leeds Rhinos where he captained the side and even led as Director of Rugby. It seems like a very strong appointment to the squad, what do you think he will be focusing on in the quick run up to the Six Nations?
JW: What’s vital for Steve is bringing people in that he’s worked with and trusts, and that he’s seen working day to day. Kevin has got massive experience predominantly in rugby league but also now within Leicester – he’s been under Steve, and worked with him for a long time so I think it’s important for Steve that he has those people around him that he trusts and knows how they work. In a period where you need to hit the ground running, it’s really important that those relationships are strong and the delivery of the messaging from the coaching team is connected, and that there’s a cohesion in what they’re saying. I think that’s really important. The run-up is short, they have a little bit of time in camp so the way that the management team works together is vital.
AS: Looking further ahead to the upcoming World Cup, Eddie Jones has gone back in as Australia Head Coach. Do you think that is a good move for him, or is there not enough time for him to implement his plan?
JW: It’s a bit of a mad one, really. But Eddie’s going to be unbelievably driven back in Australia and I think there is even potential for an England/Australia game at some stage in the World Cup so it could be a very interesting time. But he loves the game and he wants to be in it, so I’m not surprised that he’s back in the game quickly. Australia has been fairly inconsistent recently but he’ll definitely bring the best tune out of them so that will be exciting when our game comes around. I’m sure there will be a lot of spice to it.
AS: It feels like we have one of the most stacked World Cup’s on the horizon with a number of teams fancying their chances of lifting the trophy in Paris. Who is your favourite and why?
JW: I think it’s an incredibly competitive time in international rugby – we’ve mentioned the teams in the Six Nations but if you also look at South Africa and New Zealand, obviously Australia, and Argentina who can make it really difficult as we saw in the Autumn. Who my favourite is, is a very difficult question to answer! I think South Africa are very strong, physical and have great depth but the Six Nations will be a great indicator to see where we’re at going into the World Cup. Ask me again after that…
AS: Recently we have unfortunately seen Worcester and Wasps go into administration, do you think the RFU needs to do more to help rugby clubs prosper in a very competitive market right now?
JW: The Worcester and Wasps situation was a terrible thing for the game. Really disappointing to see how that played out, and obviously financially there was mismanagement at many levels. The situation people found themselves in during Covid hit every club to be honest, even us. I think the way that you navigated that period was important and it’s really sad to see many guys that I know from those clubs now facing a disappointing and tricky time. The RFU should be in a position to be able to at least foresee some of these issues but again, it’s the job of clubs to realise that the surroundings and the current climate isn’t an easy one to navigate. Thankfully, there’s now support in place, an independent financial board which assesses each club at the beginning of each season which is a really important step forward so we can hopefully avoid this happening again in the future. But yes, clubs need to be supported, however they need to be mindful of the climate we’re in and prepare for the worst-case scenario. That’s the only real way to do it.
AS: Back to your career with Saracens. Your contract expires at the end of this season, what are your plans moving forward? You previously did an interview a couple of years ago saying you couldn’t see yourself playing for another club in England and it wasn’t the right time to look elsewhere. With your contract expiring soon, has anything changed there or are you looking to finish your career with Saracens?
JW: I’ve had a brilliant time playing rugby at Saracens so whether that continues or not, I want to stay and play here and finish here. I don’t want to play anywhere else. I love being at the club, I’ve grown up here, I know everyone so well and it’s literally a part of me now. So I definitely can’t see myself playing anywhere else but who knows what could happen. I’m very happy at Saracens and with what we’re doing, so we’ll see in the near future how that evolves. But it’s a brilliant place to be and I’ve loved every minute of it. The ups, the downs and everything that goes with it. My family loves it, I love it and that’s the main thing for me. What will come in the future can stay in the future for now.
AS: And finally, outside of rugby and into another sport you enjoy – football. You’re a West Ham fan, and it’s been a bit of a challenging season for you guys so far. Can you see the Hammers clinging onto Premier League football next season? What do they need to do to avoid the drop?
JW: Yes, I’m a huge West Ham fan. It’s a sport and a team I love to follow. At the club I get a lot of heat for supporting West Ham and unfortunately they’ve had some good seasons but usually we go up and down quite a bit. I think they’ll be ok. At the moment it’s very tight down at the bottom, there’s a lot of teams not doing particularly well and I think we need to try and navigate til the end of the season but I do think we’ll be ok in the end. I’d like to think we’ll have a good run in Europe and the FA Cup but to stay in the Premier League is huge. I do see us avoiding the drop – it’s just a case of getting everyone firing in the team and with the quality we bought in the summer, we do have a very good squad. We need to maximise what we’re doing and I’m sure David Moyes is working tirelessly to ensure this happens. We had a great win at the weekend and fingers crossed we can take momentum from that, move forward and start moving back up the table. It’s difficult but hopefully we’ll pull off a few more positive results.