The last time Saracens met today’s Champions Cup quarter-final opponents Racing Métro, it was in neutral Nantes in January 2013 in one of those take-the-game-to-the-masses spectacles both clubs adore.
Racing scored three tries to one but finished as losers, partly because Owen Farrell kicked 10 penalty goals, a record for any European match. Now Farrell is injured but, in the meantime, Sarries have added one of the mightiest goal-kickers in world rugby to their roster: Argentina’s Marcelo Bosch.
Yet when Bosch is asked about his cult-hero status for swiping kicks through the posts from ludicrous distances – most famously for his club in a 28-24 win over Northampton in the Premiership this time last year – the 31-year-old Puma looks a little sheepish. “It’s been a while since I kicked one,” Bosch says, thinking perhaps of the near miss in Munster earlier in this season’s European campaign. “But I’m always practising because you never know when the time will come.”
That time could easily be this lunchtime, as a tight match is predicted at Racing’s Stade Yves-du-Manoir in the Paris suburbs. Charlie Hodgson was kicking for Saracens at the start of last weekend’s match against Harlequins at Wembley but, apparently hampered by injury, the fly-half ceded the tee to full-back Alex Goode.
Whoever takes the principal role today, both men know they have the back-up of Bosch for the longer-distance jobs. His famous penalty against Northampton was not far from his own team’s 10-metre line, roughly 58 metres from the target, and it induced astonishment in the TV commentary of Nick Mullins: “He barely touched it! It’s like he was kicking a beach ball, the laws of physics say you cannot do that!”
Bosch also whipped over a kick from the halfway line in Argentina’s 2011 World Cup quarter-final against New Zealand in Auckland, with the same two-step run-up and minimum of fuss. Now Saracens’ supporters love to strike up a chant of “Bosch, Bosch, Bosch” whenever there is an appropriate penalty award.
“It’s incredible – I have never experienced anything like it, the crowd sometimes chanting my name,” Bosch says. “I enjoy that and I enjoy kicking but I haven’t had the chance recently. I think it will be close [today] with lots of kicking from hand and the strategy that goes with that. The key will be discipline and trying to score points when you have good moments.”
But there is another, subtler reason why Bosch appears bashful about the boot. As we saw at Wembley, and throughout his 33 Test caps (including all eight of Argentina’s major internationals in 2014) and seven years playing in the French league for Biarritz, he is much more than an uncultured hoofer.
Though he is now settled as a centre – with the onus on him to organise Saracens’ defence in Brad Barritt’s absence through injury – he was a running fly-half or occasionally a full-back with a devastating step and hand-off until a knee injury in 2009 caused him to modify his game while still retaining an ambitious outlook.
“We may not see very open rugby today but it is Europe and sometimes these teams and matches surprise you,” Bosch says. “If it’s an open match and the ball is going to the wingers, I will be happy because I like to play with the hands.”
Hence the decision he made as a teenager growing up in Buenos Aires? “I played both football,” he explains, “and then I had to make a choice because with school and everything it was too much. I decided to go with the rugby club because that’s where my friends were. I love football but I don’t think I could have been a professional.”
Saracens have been England’s most consistent team in Europe in recent years, with a semi-final in 2013 and a losing final to Toulon last season. They played Racing four times in 2010-11 and 2012-13, losing in Watford and winning in Paris, Brussels and Nantes.
This season the French club, whose legendary flamboyance in the 1980s included wearing bow-ties on the pitch and quaffing champagne at half-time, have been deadly serious in reaching their first European quarter-final.
They are No 1, seeds, having already beaten Northampton home and away in the pool, although oddly the team with that ranking has never gone on to lift the cup. “Racing have come through a little under the radar but they’re the favourites, playing at home,” said Mark McCall, Saracens’ director of rugby.
When Bosch arrived in Biarritz, that French Atlantic town where rugby vies with surfing for the greatest affection, Racing were languishing in the second division. They have since come to epitomise the modern French scene: with a wealthy owner (Jacky Lorenzetti) and loads of foreign imports, they are disputing the Top 14 title with Toulon, Clermont Auvergne, Stade Français and Toulouse. They also have Ireland’s Johnny Sexton and Wales’ Jamie Roberts as blue-chip string-pullers.
Meanwhile, Biarritz have gone from fielding half the France national team when Bosch joined, and contesting two Heineken Cup finals, to a sad demise and relegation. “I have really good memories of my life in Biarritz,” he says , “but the club never evolved and that’s how they got overtaken by others.”
Bosch’s fellow Puma, the wing Juan Imhoff, has scored five European tries for Racing this season, while Saracens’ Chris Ashton was the competition’s top try-scorer last season and, with Dave Strettle, forms a threat described by McCall as “the two best finishers in England”.
Bosch prefers an analogy harking back to his youth. “They are strikers, like No 9s in football,” he says with a smile. “Saracens is totally different to Biarritz. The structure is incredible. I wanted to experience another culture, another way of playing rugby and another language. This club has a human quality, in the players and the staff, it’s such a positive atmosphere, and you’re keen every day to come to training and to give your best for the team.”
European Pumas - 10 best Argentines
Joaquin Tuculet (Cardiff Blues)
Full-back, age 25, caps 20
Horacio Agulla (Bath)
Wing, 30, 58
Marcos Ayerza (Leicester)
Loose-head prop, 32, 57
Marcelo Bosch (Saracens)
Centre, 31, 33
Agustin Creevy (Worcester)
Hooker, 30, 26
Juan Manuel Leguizamon (Lyon)
Flanker/No 8, 31, 59
Juan Imhoff (Racing Métro)
Wing, 26, 26
Tomas Lavanini (Racing Métro)
Lock, 22, 18
Juan Fernandez Lobbe (Toulon)
Flanker/No 8, 33, 61
Juan Martin Hernandez (Toulon)
Centre, 32, 52Reuse content