Saracens’ Theo Dan is currently away with the England squad as preparations continue for the World Cup in France. Talking Rugby Union heard from two of his past coaches to find out why the hooker is such an exciting prospect. (Photo Credit: Wired Photos)
Over the last few years, Theo Dan has given coaches across the country a catalogue of reasons to sit up and take notice.
There has been destructive ball carrying, ferociousness in contact, strong work at set-piece time and even a 50:22 in a Premiership final. While England lauds cricketers Mark Wood and Chris Woakes for keeping the Ashes alive, perhaps the Saracens forward will be the latest ‘all-rounder’ the country can get behind over the next few months.
The injury setback for Luke Cowan-Dickie – followed by the announcement of his move to Sale Sharks – means he has been the hooker in the spotlight in recent weeks but Dan’s call-up to Steve Bortwick’s World Cup training squad is certainly worthy of some headlines.
And for some, this shouldn’t come as a surprise.
For Ampthill head coach Paul Turner, Dan’s inclusion in England’s plans for France 2023 is confirmation of the talent he possesses.
— Ampthill Rugby (@AmpthillRufc) May 28, 2023
“I watched him one Friday night down in Gloucester when he was playing for Saracens’ academy,” says Turner, who had Dan on loan at Championship side Ampthill in 2021-22 as well as last season.
“Gloucester were a bit too strong with Saracens that night but everyone was talking about this hooker. He just looked quite dangerous…dangerous to the opposition and dangerous to himself! He was carrying the ball like you wouldn’t believe. He was hitting people and going over them and I thought; ‘Christ, I want to know more about this guy!”
Given Saracens’ affiliation with Ampthill, Turner did get to work and learn more about Dan but the hooker’s soaring development meant his time at Dillingham Park was brief.
To lose him was disappointing, but Turner knew Dan was always going to find his way to the top and that view is echoed by former Bishop’s Stortford Director of Rugby Andy Long.
“As soon as I saw him, you could just see he had something about him,” Long, who worked with Dan in the 2019-20 season in National One, says. “The skill-set side of it was there. He had good game awareness so the practical part of his game was something he was continuing to learn.
“The attitude to constantly work on his game stood out too. Even back then, I thought Saracens have got a special player and England could have a special player. It became quite clear that he was an X-factor player.”
Tim Harmer, who helped develop Dan during his junior days at Blackheath between 2006 and 2016, has a slightly different take.
“It doesn’t surprise me he is where he is because of his grunt work, his ability and direction but if someone had asked me, I would have thought he would have been a very good player, maybe play for Blackheath,” he says. “I just thought he was going to be a bloody good rugby player because he enjoyed the sport.
“He obviously made that conscious decision when he was younger with his parents that rugby was what he was going to do. I am surprised at the level he has got to, but in a good way, because you see so many people fall by the wayside for whatever reason so you have to have something about you and also sheer determination and hard work and obviously it is paying off for Theo.”
In an interview with The Telegraph’s Charlie Morgan back in May, the piece highlights Dan’s journey in the game. While others may progress through an academy, break into the first team and shine on the Premiership stage, the Saracen has experienced various different tiers of England’s club pyramid to get to where he is.
You could say it all began within the junior ranks at Blackheath where Dan was originally a “utility back” and even at those early ages, he caught the eye of Harmer.
Theo Dan and Val Rapava-Ruskin, who played for Club Minis and Juniors sections, have both been named in Steve Borthwick’s World Cup training squad. Read about it on our website https://t.co/ruFwsLa7gB#blackheathrugby #blackheathfc #club #clubalumni
— BlackheathRugby (@Blackheath_1858) July 13, 2023
“I remember we went on tour at U12s to Bournemouth where we won the Bournemouth Festival and that is where he was beginning to develop into quite a talented player,” Harmer explains. “He was my fly-half and then really going through the last four years of junior rugby, he was a utility back.
“I distinctly remember at U15s/U16s when he had been training with Kent just the ferocity of his defence. Standing on the touchline, you could hear the thump and you sort of almost cringed in pity for the opposition! His defensive work was really quite second to none and while he didn’t stand out height-wise or in terms of physicality at that age, his acceleration onto the ball was really quite a step change which you still see nowadays.
“His handling was good, he was a good place kicker, he was very attuned with his own ability but also to the other good players in the side. He was a very good all-round sportsman and very aware of what was going on. He just had one of those rugby brains.”
The exciting youngster was soon spotted by Saracens who recognised his talents may lie in a different position on the field.
“When he went to Sarries around 16, 17, his father, Octavian, came to me and said; ‘Christ Tim, they want him to play as hooker and I’m not really sure about this,'” continues Harmer.
“I said to him if Sarries can recognise him as a potential hooker, he’s got the ball skills, he’s got speed, he’s got the agility, he’s got the ferocity because he had that rugby brain. All the facets were there to make him the all-rounder.
“He is a great footballer and with a rugby brain, he would have learnt being a hooker fairly quickly. He would have found it pretty hard and probably knowing Theo, pretty scary that he was going to be a hooker but there were a number of times where he used to join the back of a ruck or maul and he would go in there and push it forward!
“With his skills, hand-eye coordination, kicking and tackling, a hooker is the best place for him to be because he can be anywhere and he could find himself in the outside centre/wing channel and still make an impact. He has got all the attributes.”
The switch from backs to forwards was now up and running and a couple of years into the transition, Dan was sent on loan to National One club Bishop’s Stortford to continue his development.
Like Ampthill, Dan’s stint at Silver Leys was only short but he was still able to produce numerous moments where his blend of attributes came to the fore.
“We had a very good relationship with Saracens where we had loan players come in,” says Long. “We had Dom Morris, Tom Whiteley, Manu Vunipola, Andy Christie to name but a few. Theo was just one of those lads that came to us. He was quite raw. He played in our ‘Blues’ [Stortford’s second team] for a few games as well. He didn’t just come into our first team.
“He didn’t moan. He didn’t grumble. He did really well and like anything, he showed the right attitude. We clearly realised he had talent too. There were times when you saw his desire to get on the ball, and his running lines and his work rate were always spot on.
“We were seeing him making line breaks that you would expect centres to make! They weren’t normal line breaks. He was bumping players off and when they are an 18,19-year-old player bumping off a 25, 26-year-old man, that is special.
“You think; ‘Bloody hell this guy has first of all got the confidence and nothing fazes him and he enjoys that contact aspect, but he has got that explosive power too.
“We saw that a lot. I think it was Rosslyn Park at home, against one of the best sides in that league, he was just phenomenal. There were obviously aspects around his set-piece which he had to work on. That is quite normal but there were plenty of times when we thought; ‘this guy is special.'”
Dan then experienced a setback in his development. The hooker had three knee surgeries over 15 months and not long after his return, that is when he linked up with Ampthill.
In doing so, he became the latest promising youngster from Saracens to ply his trade in Bedfordshire. The likes of Nick Isiekwe and Ben Earl also had spells at the club, which were designed to help improve their game.
Dan’s was no different but not for the first time, Turner was taken aback by the ability of one of Saracens’ emerging talents.
“In years gone by, we have had guys like Alex Mitchell [Northampton], Nick Isikewe, Ben Earl and as soon as they play for you, you realise they ain’t going to be with you long!” Turner laughs. We sort of noticed that with Theo.
“When he came to us in both seasons, he played really well. He is a ferocious ball carrier, a good defender and his line-out is good. Most of my coaches last year, and myself included, sort of tipped him for the World Cup then. You could see you couldn’t leave a guy like him out. He will give you huge destructive ball-carrying and awareness around the field. He is a great footballer.
“He will run over people and he will take edges off people as well. He would have been great in the old British bulldog game in school!”
That’s class, Theo Dan! ??
— Rugby on BT Sport (@btsportrugby) May 27, 2023
The Premiership got to witness that impressive athleticism in the second half of the 2022-23 season but Dan actually began the year by lining up against Saracens for Ampthill in a pre-season friendly at the StoneX Stadium.
“He was great for us,” Turner continues. “He came into our team that night and headed into the away changing room having trained with them [Saracens] in the week and then listened to my team talk about them!
“He then went out to perform like he did [Dan also helped himself to a try] and I think that was the night it probably registered with his coaches at Saracens that they wanted to try and push this boy on. It sounds pretty obvious but playing against his own like he did, probably said a lot.
“Immediately after that friendly, he came back to us and proved his point again. He played in the first three or four games and was outstanding so it was only going to be a matter of time before he went back to Saracens and I am delighted he has taken his chance.”
Consistent game time between January and March for Saracens culminated with Dan coming off the bench after just 10 minutes of the Premiership final following a head injury to his mentor Jamie George.
If the 22-year-old was asked last September to visualise how his season would pan out, being a significant piece in Saracens returning to the top of the club game and being involved in a World Cup training squad might not have entered his thoughts.
With George likely to be Borthwick’s first choice No.2 in France, Dan is currently competing with Jamie Blamire (Newcastle Falcons) for that secondary spot, with the World Cup hopefuls being put through their paces in the heat of Italy.
In his interview with The Telegraph, Dan admitted representing England “has been his dream since he was a kid” and those who have played a part in his journey are backing him to take the next step.
“Being in the England environment now over in Italy, he will just be lapping that up,” Long says.
“He is a good bloke and he always shows the right attitude. I think that will go a long way with Steve and knowing Steve quite well, I think that attitude will be something he will be impressed by.
“If you look at all the hookers that are in the England squad at the moment, none of them can do what Theo can do. I think that’s what you want. What I think we need to do with someone like Theo is embrace it. It is like ‘Bazball’ isn’t it?! We’ve got this guy who can do something on the rugby field which is unique.
Things are hotting up for England men’s training squad in Verona. Literally ????
And this is why… ??
— England Rugby (@EnglandRugby) July 12, 2023
“Steve will be looking at that. If he wants someone to come on and break up the game and do something different, I think having him off the bench would be fantastic. I do hope he gets his opportunity to show what he can do. I am really pleased for him because he was a credit to himself when he came to us at Stortford.”
“I’ll never forget one thing his father told me,” Harmer adds. “At school, Theo was once asked to write about someone he looks up to or admires and he wrote about me. That was so touching. He could have picked anybody!
“He was just a good egg. I recently just followed him on Instagram. I was away in France when the Premiership final was on and I watched it and I coo about him all the time. I pinged him on Instagram to say really well done and he came straight back saying thanks to you, I am in this position.
“I pinged him another after his England call-up and again he said without you and others, I wouldn’t be in this position. That is just the sort of person he is. He has done it all by himself, on his own merit and through his own tenacity so I am just chuffed for him.”
“It is great he has got to where he has because he has huge potential,” adds Turner. “We [Ampthill] have only been a small part. Hopefully I will be watching him down in Cardiff next month [when England face Wales in a World Cup warm-up match.] Hopefully, he will be involved there. He deserves it because he has done really well.”