Saracens need to summon the old wolf-pack spirit
Struggling champions must go back to basics to overcome the huge challenge of Clermont
If you count yourself as a massive rugby fan, then I would recommend telling your family you have a hospital appointment to remove a troublesome ingrown hair and then secretly locking yourself in a darkened room for the next 48 hours.
Normally, each round of Champions Cup group matches throws up one blockbuster and a couple of tasty matches. This weekend, it is all killer and no filler. A strange quirk of the fixture list means that first play second in all five pools, including three games where both teams have 100 per cent records.
That includes Toulon taking on Bath at the Stade Mayol in the battle of the “skint” owners tomorrow before Leicester travel to Munster in probably the most storied of European fixtures. On Sunday, there’s a repeat of last season’s final between Saracens and Clermont, followed by English champions Exeter hosting a Leinster team who will be welcoming back all their Ireland internationals.
On any other weekend, La Rochelle, the leaders of the Top 14, taking on a resurgent Wasps would be the fixture of the round, but in the Sunday lunchtime slot it almost feels like an afterthought.
Purely because of the recent history between the teams, I would have Saracens v Clermont as the game of the weekend. As formidable as they have been in Europe, both are struggling with injuries and form. One obviously has an effect on the other. Whether through international call-ups or injury, Saracens have been without Jamie George, Mako Vunipola, Maro Itoje, George Kruis, Billy Vunipola, Owen Farrell, Alex Lozowski, Sean Maitland and Liam Williams for some or all of the past few weeks, in which they have lost five times. That is the spine of their team, plus the femur and sternum.
This does not amount to a full-blown crisis. Two of those defeats were in the Anglo-welsh Cup and their three league defeats away against Gloucester and Harlequins and at home against Exeter all came in the final moments of the game. But, watching them, you sense something is slightly off.
My chief concern is for their defence, where I have not seen that famed wolf-pack line speed intensity. Sides are now taking them on around the fringes and are perhaps taking advantage of the new laws around the rucks. In attack, too, they are lacking a bit of fluency. When Clermont come to town, I would expect them to go back to basics and do what they do best by grinding out the win.
It is an interesting exercise to compare Saracens’ squad to Exeter’s. Saracens have the star power but Exeter have the depth. In the back row alone, they have – deep breath – Don Armand, Dave Ewers, Matt Kvesic, Julian Salvi, Sam Simmonds and Thomas Waldrom competing for spots. That is just ridiculous.
Last weekend, they demolished Bath and are eight points clear at the top of the Premiership. Leinster had the luxury of resting all their Ireland internationals last week but even then I just cannot see how they will be able to stop Exeter. My one worry for Exeter is that it is very hard to keep that energy going for the entire season. It is almost like you want to have a blip
In attack, too, they are lacking a bit of fluency. They need to grind out the win
at some point, where a defeat can act as a reset for the group.
Leicester, meanwhile, have some serious unfinished business going to Thomond Park, where they were thrashed 38-0 last season. Even with a new coach, the squad as a whole will bear the scars of that day. Can they pull off another iconic Tigers victory? I am not convinced, but they should be competitive and coming away with a bonus point may put them in the driving seat.
I would also say that Bath and Wasps travel more in hope than expectation. Toulon remain formidable opposition at the Stade Mayol. So, too, La Rochelle on the west coast. They can also play a bit.
Predicting five home wins may not be original but these pools are not as cut and dried as they may seem. If the other teams in the groups can put together back-toback wins, then that will lift them right back in the hunt. There will be some shocks along the way. Whatever you do, make sure you do not miss a minute of it.