EXCLUSIVE: Former Saracen Will Fraser On Mental Strength In Post-Rugby Life and Brother Henry's Inspiration - Ruck

EXCLUSIVE: Former Saracen Will Fraser On Mental Strength In Post-Rugby Life and Brother Henry’s Inspiration

When injuries continuously hinder your career as a professional rugby player, you develop an iron will to battle through every obstacle which sets you back. Such regularly conquered mountains become mere bumps in the road, and they form an unbreakable mentality of unrelenting perseverance.

However, before too long the determined mind and spirit becomes far too strong for the body which carries it. Forced into retirement at 27-years-old, former Saracens back-row Will Fraser knows all too well the challenges of repeatedly endured injuries. A Saracen since 2011, Fraser had to watch on from the injury ward as his team established their dominance upon the Premiership, yet when the opportunity finally arose for his long-deserved shot in the spotlight, Fraser was equipped with the mentality to help bring his side the silverware.

“Well, I suppose my journey was slightly different, in that although we (Saracens) obviously played in lots of finals in that time period, and won a lot, I didn’t play in a huge amount of them because of my plethora of injuries that I had throughout my career. So unfortunately, I missed a lot of those bigger moments on the pitch. So the finals that I was heavily involved in was the year we won the double.

“So 2015-2016, I suppose from a mindset point of view, I think, for me, being the first kind of time I’ve really been involved in that. It was probably the longest I’ve played in that season and all the rest of it, I think it was determination that came through, the whole squad had that too. But for me personally, I wanted to go out and show that I deserved to be on that level. And how hard I personally worked to get back from the injuries and be back on that stage.”

Fraser’s proving-ground mindset was an anomaly, amidst the self-assured confidence of the Saracens. Whilst the flanker was eager to finally make his mark on the grandest stage, his teammates had reached the summit time and again, as a glistening collection of trophies and medals decorated the cabinets in the StoneX Stadium. Such reminders of past success instilled an expectant mid-set into Fraser’s teammates, that would often go on to reap the rewards.

“The mentality of the group at that point (was), we’d already won four Premierships, we’d lost a European Cup final before that. So, I think particularly that first European Cup win, the mentality was very much one of appreciation for how far we’ve come. We got this far before us and we knew we had it in us. I think that season, we were still the only team to win the European Cup going unbeaten throughout the entirety of the competition. So I think we had a huge amount of confidence going into it.

“Also, there’s this strange mentality that ‘actually nothing necessarily changes’. From the sense that, it’s not just another game, of course not, it’s the European Cup final, and then the Premiership Final a few weeks later, but equally, we’ve been here, we’ve done it before, we don’t need to change anything that we’ve done throughout the rest of the season that’s got us to this point. So I think there’s definitely an element of calmness to it, that’s mixed in with this just sheer determination and willingness to go and do whatever we need to do.”

Fraser continued on into the following season of success, as Saracens picked up their second European Champions Cup in the 2016/17 season. However amongst the jubilant celebrations of another accomplished campaign, Fraser was told the harrowing news that his playing career was no longer in his hands. A sudden incident in a training session sent the back-row through months of treatment and multiple scans, before a doctor hung up Fraser’s boots when the resilient flanker refused to.

“It came out the blue, and it was the entirety of that decision to step away. So it was actually a training session, I just, I cricked my neck in a training session, and you kind of walk around for a few days, and you’ll be like a robot and you can’t really move it. Then a few weeks went by and I was in a gym session, I got under the barbell for the benchpress, and I wasn’t the strongest guy in the squad by any stretch anyway, but I put the bar down and then, basically one of my arms just wouldn’t go back up.

“So I twigged that something was up. I went for various scans, and it turned out that I slipped a disc in my neck and got a bleed on my spine. So quite a serious injury, and after various appointments with surgeons and consultants and we gave it six to nine months (recovery). All the rehab and all that good stuff he’s trying to do and, and it didn’t change at all.

“So the advice I was given by the consultants and the surgeon was that unfortunately, my neck just wouldn’t be able to withstand playing rugby anymore. So, in many ways, it wasn’t my decision, and that was entirely taken out of my hands. Which is devastating but at the same time it has a lot of pros to it as well, because had they left it up to me, chances are I would have given it another go, and who knows kind of where that would have ended up.

“Then obviously looking at what happens with Henry (Will’s brother), you know, neck injuries are quite close to home. So it’s probably a good thing in the end that it wasn’t my decision.”

We will return to discuss the inspirational Henry Fraser later in this article, as for the time being Will had unexpectedly entered his rugby playing retirement. As is the manor of starting a new, Fraser had to push on down this unknown path, but relied on his past experiences to overcome the challenges that would come his way.

“I think the definite silver lining of the injuries, was the ability gave me to put things into perspective. And that mixed in with obviously, everything that happened with with my brother as well. I think by the time I kind of got round to the last stage of my career, and then you know, actually perfectly in line with the rest of my career, I had to finish because of an injury as well.

“So I think at the time, obviously they were all tough and but I think what it taught me, was a huge amount about myself. Self awareness of how I deal with setbacks, what I need to do to get myself back in the right frame of mind to kind of get on the horse again. I think since rugby, it’s been invaluable. Everyone, every family deals with their own challenges relevant to themselves.

“So I think you always deal with these knock backs or these challenges that come your way. So I think having that bank of experience that I got when I was playing rugby through the injuries, being able to then apply that to different situations has 100% helped me massively post my rugby career.”

Opportunity knocked for Fraser to remain amongst the camaraderie of the Saracens ‘Wolfpack’, as he landed a role with the ‘Saracens Way’ organisation. The commercial arm of the club, Fraser cut his teeth as the head of an entire department and learned valuable insider tropes to excel in the business management sphere.

Image Credit: The Saracens Way

Established by former Saracens stars Hugh Vyvyan and Neil de Kock, the Saracens Way served Fraser well in his immediate post-rugby life, but would be promptly closed down following the Saracens salary cap scandal breaches. Fraser discussed this run with the Saracens business department, and how he would then propel off to establish business consultancy group 100 & First, off the back of his learning.

“So when I finished the club kind of approached me and said, ‘Well, there’s an opportunity here to kind of get something up and running, get it off the ground’. Because of the period of time I’ve been involved with the club, and because of what the club had done in that period. I’ve been involved with Sarries, since I was 14-years-old.

“So it was one of these very serendipitous, star-aligning moments, that I was probably the ideal person to do it, because of my experience and knowledge of the club. And then as it just happened, I’d also just finished playing rugby. So it’s ideal for everyone.

“The club were amazing from that point of view. I had a very unique experience of retiring from professional sport, and the day after I finished, I had a job opportunity straightaway, which is very rare. And I was very aware that that was very rare, and how privileged and fortunate I was.

“What was really nice about that was it kept me close to the club. As much as I was trying to get over, you know, ‘I should still be playing’, that first year I think I was at every single game. I was still going into the changing rooms after the matches, and I was at the training ground at least once or twice a week. You know, my nails were coming off, that was how hard I was kind of clinging on to still being involved. Which probably saved my soul to be honest, a little bit.

“Then it was in the second year after I finished, that I then completely u-turned. I think I may have gone to one game all year, because I suddenly rediscovered other elements of my life. How actually it’s quite nice to have weekends, and to go to the pub, and you can reconnect with friends that I didn’t see as much, because I was playing. Since then, I found this very happy kind of medium. The Saracens Way, it was an absolute blessing to be given that opportunity. It’s really the foundation to what I’m doing now with 100 and First.”

Pivoting back to the business side of 100 and First, and Will’s brother Henry Fraser acts as a constant source of inspiration to the group’s partnering clients. In July of 2009, Henry was involved in a tragic accident, as he dove head-first into an ocean sandbank whilst on holiday. The incident resulted in Henry being paralysed, and he now lives his life in a wheelchair.

Yet despite this life-altering accident, Will discussed how Henry’s outlook on life is one to be admired. An accomplished artist, author and playwright, Henry’s memoirs are presented on the canvas, his best-selling book, and through his theatre production ‘The Little Big Things’. Will discussed how his brother also often provides inspirational messages to the clients at 100 & First, with the Fraser brother’s coming together to bring their teachings of overcoming obstacles into the business world.

“So, the story is pretty well known now. He’s had this amazing journey of going from not just a life changing accident, but one that essentially took his life, to now being in a situation where, in his words, ‘his life is better and richer because of that incident than ever would have been without it’.

“He’s written his books, and he’s got his amazing art and the West End musical now, based on his book, so it’s all unbelievably surreal for him, more so than any of us. But for all of us, it’s incredibly surreal, how he’s been able to deal with that. It has a huge subconscious impact on anyone that knows him, the closer you are, the bigger the impact.

Image Credit: Henry Fraser and Rob Diament

“So for us as brothers, as family and friends, yes, this subconscious indelible mark on us, from having a sense of perspective on certain situations and this understanding, of well, ‘what can I actually do in this situation, regardless, of how bad it is, is there something I can do here, and try to dig and figure out what that is.”

“Also, no matter how bad, there’s always something good that can come from it. Even if that good is purely just knowing a little bit more about yourself, and how you manage adversity, that’s a good thing that you get from that situation. So, because of that, we can use him a lot at work. So we have a lot of clients that come to us, that fundamentally their challenge is they’re going through a significant change in their organisation, or they’ve had to deal with a big dose of adversity, or big challenges coming down the track.

“That can be things like going through a big organisational restructure, headcount reduction, hybrid working, all these sorts of things. When you get rid of the wording, what you’re looking at is a change, fundamentally, you’re going through a change and how do you manage that change? Henry’s story is perfect, because that’s what Henry did.

Will went then continued to explain how once context is taken away, Henry’s courageousness to push on in the face of adversity can be applied to any circumstances. Henry Fraser’s story is one of overcoming an immense change, which has been a useful template for 100 & First’s clients to improve themselves upon.

Image Credit: Henry Fraser and Royal Variety

“Again, you get when you take the accident out, you take the detail out, what he did was go through a significant change in his life, and actually be better because of that change, than he would have been without it. So there’s so much of Henry’s story that we use with our clients. Henry comes in, tell’s his story and that has all the obvious implications of inspiration. And again, endorphin release, all those sorts of things.

“And we say ‘cool, well, let’s use the key learnings and tangible takeaways from it in the language and apply it to the change you’re going through at the moment’. You know, ‘so how do we make sure you come out the other side of this change better because of it, than you would have been kind of without it’.

“Because the change isn’t going away, that’s happening. There’s no point wishing it didn’t happen. So how do we make sure that you get a positive outcome out of the other side? So yes, ‘H’ is still is brilliant for that. And selfishly, it’s great. I’m one of for boys, I love all my brothers to pieces, so when I’ve got the opportunity to do stuff with them, it’s always a massive bonus. That’s a lovely, kind of little side win as well.