Saracens director of rugby Mark McCall may have had good reason to express his frustration with having to release six of his first team squad to attend Monday’s British and Irish Lions gathering in London, just five days before Saracens embark on what may be the most important game of their season.
With Saturday’s European Champions Cup final seeing Saracens go for back-to-back victories in the competition, becoming the fourth club in the history of the competition to do so after Leicester Tigers, Leinster and Toulon, McCall has taken extra care to ensure that his squad is fully prepared for the clash against French heavyweights Clermont Auvergne.
The Northern Irishman set his stall out by resting a number of key players in Saturday’s final Premiership league match against Wasps, despite having the chance to secure a home semi-final berth, and deployed just one of his six Lions members in the starting line-up in the form of George Kruis, with Jamie George the only other to feature as he came off the replacements.
Rested were the fly-half Owen Farrell, lock Maro Itoje and the Vunipola brothers, Mako and Billy, ahead of what is a crucial week in the clubs history. Only it got off in the worst way possible, as all six members had to attend the Lions get-together in London as the 41-man squad joined head coach Warren Gatland to pick up their kit and complete the necessary administration.
"There is a Lions get-together on Monday which seems to be quite unbelievable that it is then given it is the most important week of the season,” McCall told the Sunday Telegraph.
"You'd have thought someone would have had the foresight to see that it might affect the club."
McCall was not impressed, but Gatland made no apologies, the New Zealander insisting that the Lions gave the four home unions “months and months and months” of notice that the meeting was happening on Monday 08 May.
The timing is poor, yes, but this is Saracens we’re talking about, a team who has managed to overcome every obstacle thrown at them over the last two seasons. Clermont will need something special to stop them, but all the ingredients might just be falling in place for the Top 14 side.
McCall has injury concerns over tighthead prop Vincent Koch – a worry given Juan Figallo is already out for the season – as well as the Scotland wing Sean Maitland. If Koch doesn’t make the trip north to Murrayfield, 35-year-old Petrus du Plessis will have to carry the responsibility of taking on Clermont’s Thomas Domingo, just two weeks short of his planned retirement.
Gatland also made the point that he planned the Lions gathering on this particular date because “Mondays tend to be a recovery day”, but by resting his key players, it’s very likely McCall had a full training session planned for those who did not feature at the weekend.
Granted, a team of Saracens’ calibre is likely to be unnerved by missing a day of training, but it’s these little things that, when added together and thrown into the pressure-cooker that is a European Champions Cup final, can sometimes prove the difference between winning and losing, or in this case, history and heartbreak.Reuse content