Jackson Wray interview: ‘It’s been a mad few years at Saracens, I’m desperate for a final piece of the puzzle’
Jackson Wray has been front and centre in every Saracens highlight, featuring in all four Premiership triumphs and three Champions Cup victories.
The dogged flanker was right in the midst of the tough times too, Saracens’ relegation for salary cap breaches and battle back to the top of the English game.
The 32-year-old will retire at the end of the month, and remains desperate to go out with a fifth top-flight title – perhaps to prove some points, but definitely to end a glittering career at peace with his contribution.
In a season where both Wasps and Worcester have gone bust, leaving scores of players and staff jobless, Wray finds the brickbats for Sarries’ 2020 relegation “astonishing” by comparison.
Saracens’ quest for redemption slipped agonisingly away in last term’s 15-12 Premiership final defeat by Leicester.
The Men In Black will host Northampton in Saturday’s semi-final at StoneX Stadium, with Wray bidding to finish with a flourish.
“The way we’re treated, the way our families are treated, we’re connected to this place forever,” he tells Standard Sport.
“Even the salary cap, relegation, the Championship season, all those things tested us as people, as a group. And I’m proud to have worn that. We took that as a group, took everything on the chin, took it head-on.
“We stuck together and we came back and earned the opportunity to potentially make the big return to the top of the English game. That’s something we’re unbelievably driven to do. And that for me would be the moment where I’d be content, in a weird kind of way.
“After riding the mad wave for the last few years, that’s the last piece of my puzzle that I’m desperate to put in there.”
Wray played in all Saracens’ league triumphs, in 2015, 2016, 2018 and 2019 – and all the Champions Cup victories too, in 2016, 2017 and 2019. Throw in more than 300 appearances for his sole club, and his rugby CV has few modern-era equals.
Saracens’ stars could so easily have walked away from the salary-cap crisis when a Premiership title defence led to relegation in 2020. No one left, and Wray explained why.
“It comes back to that previous eight or nine years before that; we had a lot of connection in the bank if you like,” said Wray.
“Not to say that it wasn’t difficult and there weren’t serious questions asked obviously. But again, we got past that and we said, ‘Right we’re buying in, we’re going to come back and we’re going to stick together’.
“Everything that’s gone on in the last year with other clubs, all the abuse that’s directed towards the club as a whole, and certain really important individuals, I find actually quite astonishing compared to what I’m seeing now from the owners of certain clubs that have acted in a certain way. There’s been probably nowhere near as much abuse as certain individuals from our club.”
An ever-present for Saracens’ glory years, Wray’s impending retirement represents the end of an era in north London.
My body’s actually doing pretty well, but I’m always conscious that can turn quickly.
Wray could easily have extended his career still further given his bullish form this term, but instead he seized the chance to go out on his own terms.
“I always said I didn’t want to wait until I couldn’t do it any more,” said Wray, who will move into a role with Dowgate Wealth in the City.
“My body’s actually doing pretty well, but I’m always conscious that can turn quickly. I’ve worked really hard to create opportunity to have the choice for what’s next. So it just felt like now was the right time.
“So retirement just makes sense. Not that I won’t miss this place, it’s mental! It drives you mad some days and you love it others. It’s incredible and I’ll be very sad to leave, but at least I only live round the corner.”
For all the many and varied highs at Saracens, Wray believes Mark McCall’s men have always shown their greatest strength in adversity.
Saracens lost both the Premiership and European finals in 2014, only to hit back in style in the following trophy-laden years. After last season’s last-ditch league final loss to Leicester, Wray is not about to bet against another silverware swipe in riposte.
“We’ve given ourselves a great chance, we’ve had a great season to be honest,” said Wray, about the impending play-offs. “There’s been a lot of challenges on the way and now it’s about putting it all together.
“We’re not going to take anything for granted, at any point. We learned that last year, we weren’t at our best, we didn’t play well enough and we didn’t win. And no matter how good we were going into that final, it doesn’t just happen. So that’s our main focus.
“We’ve always dealt with setbacks in a good way. Losing two finals in 2014 back to back, that was pretty rubbish. But learning from those, actually being tight enough to have the difficult conversations, not just superficially, that took us through.
“There’s no point peaking in September, October, November, it’s about peaking at the right time. We’ve tested ourselves this year, we’ve put it out there and we’ve been good a lot of the time.
“Now it’s about finishing strongly. If we do that, we’ll be very difficult to beat.”