Saracens coach kicks 'boring' tag into touch
On a dank day at Saracens' training ground, Mark McCall is throwing light on his team's try-scoring record, or should that be a lack of one. Saracens stand second in the Premiership table and are heading powerfully towards a fourth successive finish in the play-off places. Yet they have managed just 10 tries in 11 league matches, four fewer than the second and third bottom clubs, London Irish and London Welsh. It is an amazing statistic that has drawn accusations that Saracens, the 2011 Premiership champions, are boring.
That denunciation from, among others, two former England internationals turned BBC TV pundits, Jerry Guscott and Brian Moore, draws a passionate denial. "You could only say that's a factor if you've got an unhappy playing group," says McCall. "We've got a very happy, ambitious and motivated group. They know we don't set out to play in a boring way.
"They will tell you they don't feel shackled in any way. We have scored far too few tries in the Premiership. We'd love to score more. At the same time we have played some outstanding rugby."
Some context is called for. Saracens in the mid-Noughties were a mid-table team defined by a wretched tendency to lose matches from winning positions. They needed to change – and keep changing. "We had a sobering experience about two-and-a-half years ago," says McCall. "There were consecutive games against Leinster [a 43-20 loss away] and Clermont [24-14 winners at Watford] that exposed a few things that had been disguised in the Premiership: our physicality and set-piece issues. It was a bit of a water-shed. Since then we have had 56 Premiership/Heineken Cup matches and we've won 43. That means we're doing something right."
And here's some more figures: today's meeting of Saracens and Northampton at Vicarage Road will be the seventh in the Premiership this season among last season's four play-off clubs. The previous six have produced just four tries. So the business end is being tightly fought.
Saracens, while hampered by back-row injuries, have built victories on a committed kick-chase and dynamic attack in the breakdown and set-piece. McCall's point is that they are not the only ones. "Harlequins understand that as well as having the ball-in-hand stuff, other things needed to be put in place. Their set-piece now is outstanding and their defence is very good.
"You can throw the try-scoring stat at us, I can throw a stat at you. We've kicked 54 penalties this season, which means the opposition have given away 54 penalties in their half. In the same number of games, Northampton have had [only] 25 penalties they've kicked. That is not the same as saying we have a win-at-all costs mentality. We're building pressure and the only way for the opposition to stop us is illegally. And when you have Charlie Hodgson and Owen Farrell, you kick your goals."
McCall says winning with one try or no tries away to Harlequins and Northampton, and against Gloucester at home, and 22-0 at Bath last weekend, was just fine. "At Sale and London Welsh we could have scored five tries, then we wouldn't be having this conversation," he says.
Conceivably, a shortage of tries may hurt Saracens if they finish level on points and wins with a rival. But Alex Goode's counterattack try at Franklin's Gardens and the one from a line-out by Richard Wigglesworth at The Rec proved they can be exciting and incisive. They are top of their Heineken Cup pool. And England have picked their backs liberally: Goode, Chris Ashton, Brad Barritt and Farrell started in the win over New Zealand.
And McCall promises Saracens will not stand still. "Kevin Sorrell [Andy Farrell's successor as backs coach] is making changes," he says. "Our first-phase moves have become more important. We tried before to pass around teams, using a pod system. Kev has made us a lot more confrontational with our attack, more tidy."
Trying times for top four
Results between last year's top four this season, with tries in brackets:
Saracens 9 (0) Leicester 9 (0)
Leicester 9 (0) Harlequins 22 (1)
Harlequins 16 (1) Saracens 18 (0)
Northampton 6 (0) Saracens 16 (1)
Leicester 16 (1) Northampton 12 (0)
Northampton 9 (0) Harlequins 18 (0)
Total tries by Premiership top four:
2012-13 Harlequins 28, Leicester 23, Gloucester 19, Saracens 10.
2011-12 Leicester 70, Harlequins 53, Northampton 51, Saracens 35.
2010-11 Leicester 67, Gloucester 58, Northampton 58, Saracens 35.
2009-10 Bath 49, Leicester 46, Northampton 44, Saracens 39.
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