If you were playing a word association game and the name Don Barrell came up I’m pretty certain one of the first words out of your mouth would be Saracens; he seems to have been in or around the club for years! I met a colleague of his at a wine auction in London (bit odd as I don’t really drink) and we spoke about my interest in ‘Life After Rugby’ and who at the club might be another good person to interview. With Don having moved into a whole new phase of his career he seemed the perfect man! He kindly agreed to meet and chat.
So, as always with my interviews we went back to the start; Don was born in Watford and brought up in Bushey. Rugby captured him and indeed his sister when he was 5 after they experienced a try rugby day; they joined their nearest club together; being Harrow Rugby Club; in Don’s own words he was terrible at football, but really engaged with rugby. That was in no wall way down to his coach at the time Les Simpson; he was an advocate of playing for enjoyment – always bound to capture children.
As far as school was concerned Don won a place at Watford Grammar School. As far as PE was concerned football didn’t feature; which I imagine was a relief or Don; instead the boys played hockey, cricket and of course rugby. Inter Form rugby was the best way to display your talent and Don did so playing at Number 8. Another man; John Williams a man who taught at the school for 100 terms! Was a big influence for the future Saracen.
Although in reality we aren’t talking too many years ago it was at that time for the school to put their students forward for County teams. Don played for his county at U14’s and U16’s. At the U16’s stage he was put through to the divisional trials; he played out of position in that game taking his position in the 2nd row. He also played as a Centre at school for Year 11.
During this time Don was brought to the attention of Saracens – he was invited to a trial while on holiday in France; with an eye on his future his family flew him back. He was successful and so his life at Saracens began.
Along with all this rugby Don was studying in a school with very high expectations; he didn’t disappoint when it came to his GCSE’s passing with 2 A*’s 8 A’s and as he put it a shoddy C in Chemistry. Clearly a clever lad Don decided to pursue his studies at the Grammar School – he gained 3 A Levels at good grades a B,B, C. In most people’s terms that was a great 2 years; Don however feels that as his rugby was growing he lost some balance and didn’t necessarily achieve what he’d expected.
Rugby and Saracens were playing a bigger part in Don’s life; he made his first team debut at 18 in a Premiership game against Northampton Saints. He was offered a contract with the club at the same time a place at UCL in Central London was offered to study Anthropology. I admitted I really had no clue what that involved. It is in a nutshell – the study of the social, cultural and biological behaviour of mankind.
University is hard enough at the best of times, Don combined his studies with his Saracens commitments; he didn’t stay in halls but made great, life long friends all the same. He enjoyed studying what I should imagine to be a very interesting subject and emerged with a very creditable 2:1 in spite of missing spells at the Uni. He was picked for England U19’s during this time; being injured for the 6 Nations but traveling to Durban for the World Cup.
The self management skills Don had learnt at school while studying his A levels helped him to combine sport and studying; carrying both out successfully. Once university was done and dusted, Don with his career already in place, moved into the life of a rugby player. He played largely at Number 8; on occasion moving to Flanker with a 7 on his back.
As time went on he was getting fewer starts and as the 2011 season was due Don wasn’t offered a contract. He’d had an eye on his future and an idea of where it lay having taken both his Level 2 and 3 Coaching course. Rather than seek a contract with another Premiership club Don with the help of Saracens moved to play at Bedford Blues. At the same time Saracens had put him in contact with Mill Hill School where he became Head Coach for rugby. He also took a role coaching the Saracens Academy.
In January 2013 Don moved to the next phase of his career as he was appointed Academy Manager at Saracens; he continued playing with Bedford until the end of the 2013 season; multi-tasking, something he’s used to doing!
The Academy has players ranging from 13 to 23 at the top end of the range if needs be. Between the ages of 13 and 15 things are County based alongside the RFU, Saracens on the whole work in Herts, Essex and Kent. As many players as possible are involved in what can be a late maturation sport within the Developing Player Programme.
The Saracens staff attend County Trials and offer training to the volunteers who see children through their formative rugby years. Between 15 and 18 the players come into the Saracens Academy; they have to be prepared to make sacrifices as a blooming teenager, attending the club on a Monday and Thursday, hard work is really key if they’re to make it.
At Under 18’s level they play within an Academy League and will find out their fate being offered a contract of if not making the mark; not. The young players have the option of staying at school or attending Oaklands College where they combine their rugby with studying at BTEC level. They have an Academy Manager who is a great believer in education; the club will do all they can to ensure the young people in their care excel at their studying as well as their rugby.
I asked Don what the key values of the Academy might be – the aim of the set up is to – ‘Make Every Player The Best Person They Can Be’ – an admirable aim by any standards. In dealing with the players praise is key; coaches aren’t allowed to shout at them in front of others; if a conversation is needed it takes place on a one on one basis and is backed up by evidence.
It’s clear that a young person coming to the club 12 hours after their day started has to be engaged; the Academy staff also engage with the parents in order to get to know their players. For Don his Anthropology Degree, taken because it was likely to be very interesting, has proved to be invaluable in his choice of work after rugby. Albeit that Don’s ‘Life After Rugby’ is actually within the game; I’m certain that should he want to look outside of the game he’ll take with him his transferable skills.
However on the basis that Saracens tend to nurture their own I can see Don moving onwards and upwards at the club he’s been associated with since he was 13 years old. That weekend he was taking the mantle of coach for the LV Cup game and was looking forward to the team meeting. That game finished with a win for Saracens as they beat London rivals Harlequins as the scored 25 points to the visitors 20! Don Barrell and Saracens are words that will be uttered together for a good few years yet!