Sara­cens need to sum­mon the old wolf-pack spirit

Strug­gling cham­pi­ons must go back to ba­sics to over­come the huge chal­lenge of Cler­mont

The Daily Telegraph - Sport - - Champions Cup - AUSTIN HEALEY Austin Healey is a proud am­bas­sador of Jeep Grand Chero­kee.

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.

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