Mark McCall, Saracens’ outstanding director of rugby, was slightly nonplussed when he was asked, at the launch of the Champions Cup, a couple of weeks ago, if being defending champions was harder than winning the tournament for the first time. McCall said it was exactly the same but as his side head into this year’s tournament they know it is different this time around and it will probably be harder as well.
Their build-up has been punctuated by missing players and the way the draw is seeded, a mystery to man and beast, did not do them too many favours. As the reigning champions – this year their prize is a trip to Toulon in Saturday’s opener.
If Saracens get anything out of that one, even a losing bonus point, their campaign is off and running and they still look the best bet out of the Premiership clubs to do some damage on the continent a few months after Brexit.
Leicester face a tough trip to Glasgow on Friday, anything out of that would be a result and a half, whilst anything less than five points from Wasps when they host Zebre on Saturday would be a body blow. Elsewhere on Saturday, Northampton host Montpellier, last year’s Challenge Cup winners, Sale visit Scarlets and Exeter round it off on Sunday evening when the mighty Clermont are the visitors.
Last year, England had three of the four semi-finalists and five teams in the last eight – this time they will be doing well to get three in the last eight and the smart money is on Saracens and Wasps being two of them.
Twelve months ago, McCall had a full deck of players heading into a pool that also housed Ulster, Toulouse and Oyonnax – they were match fit and were four from four in the Premiership. His team then won all their pool games before lifting the cup in Lyon, the first time a side has won nine out of nine in the competition.
This year the Premiership champions have been hit, at various times, by injuries to Owen Farrell, Duncan Taylor, George Kruis and Alex Goode and Chris Ashton’s suspension still has a couple of months to run.
They are all massive players for the Barnet Copthall-based outfit and somehow they are top of the Premiership, after the first block of games, but life is just about to get harder.
Their reward for winning the whole kit and caboodle is to be grouped with Toulon, three-time winners, along with Scarlets and Sale. And their campaign kicks off with a game at Stade Felix Mayol on the Mediterranean where Toulon have never been beaten in the Champions Cup.
The good news is that Farrell is on the mend and Kruis and Goode are back in action so if Saracens are not quite fully-loaded they won’t be far off. Billy Vunipola is the form forward in the Premiership and Maro Itoje had his best game of the season last Sunday against Wasps.
Despite the rigours of the Premiership, and England training camps, Saracens are just about in one-piece heading for one of the biggest challenges in the game – even if there is the odd bit of sticking plaster holding them together.
This is another level from the bread and butter stuff.
“They don’t get too much bigger than Toulon away first up in Europe,” says Saracens hooker Jamie George. “These European games against the bigger teams are as close to Test match rugby that I have played without it being Test match rugby. Sometimes it is even more intense. It is a great test and we have laid the platform for the last few weeks here at Sarries. We are ready.
“It has been huge missing the likes of Owen Farrell and Duncan Taylor. We have got a lot of injuries – you almost don’t see it out there. We are showing a lot of character and we have got to take that into Toulon.”
Toulon are currently sixth in the Top 14, the French domestic league, after a start to the season that had their eccentric comic-owning tycoon owner Mourad Boudjallel threatening to fire himself. But in the last fortnight they have thrashed Montpellier and drawn with high-flying La Rochelle to put their owner in a better mood.
And any side that can call on Leigh Halfpenny, Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, the brilliant Georgian Mamuka Gorgodze, the Springbok No 8 Duane Vermeulen and the hard-hitting American international Samu Manoa is not going to go away easily. But if anyone can make them go away it is Saracens.
With eight qualifying for the knock-out stages from the five groups you would fancy Saracens and Toulon to both get in to the business end of the tournament. From this distance the other likely quarter-finalists look like being Wasps, Racing 92, Clermont, Montpellier and Leinster, now under the guidance of Stuart Lancaster. But Saracens may be about to find out – it could be a lot different to that.Reuse content