Form is a fickle business. When Brad Barritt offered a cautionary opinion on Saracens’ next opponents Toulouse – “they always get themselves up for the Heineken Cup” – it was a riposte to a statement of fact that the French giants are slightly off the pace in their domestic league.
Barritt’s Saracens, by contrast, appear to be in the best possible nick. They are top of the Premiership and, according to their England centre, who made a solid first start after injury in the 29-8 win at Gloucester on Saturday, better than ever in terms of personnel, including their 2011 title-winning team.
“I’d say it’s the strongest team in my time,” said Barritt, who joined Saracens in autumn 2008. “We’ve made massive strides forward in combining all phases of the game. The small tweaks we’ve made to our attacking framework is paying dividends.
“Last year and in previous seasons we often undid the good work we’d done in attack. We played to quite a structured middle-pod phase, playing around the corner. Now we’re a lot more direct, a lot more tempo-based, and it’s about players making better decisions at better times.
“In tough conditions [at Gloucester] we scored three great tries and there could have been a couple more.”
Moving into Europe now, Saracens will probably need to beat Toulouse – who won the reverse fixture by a point at Wembley in October – and Connacht to earn a home quarter-final tie.
Some point to Saracens’ artificial pitch as one source of their new-found attacking prowess as the Premiership’s top tryscorers with 38 in 12 matches, with 11 wins. It may be a mere coincidence that they have deployed more movement and dynamism since Andy Farrell departed to become England’s backs coach. And as Barritt, who injured ankle ligaments on the opening weekend of the season and returned to play 30 minutes of a similarly emphatic win at Worcester nine days ago, pointed out: “We’ve bought a fantastic squad.”
England will need to fashion an effective midfield too for their Six Nations Championship opener in France on 1 February. Gloucester’s Freddie Burns and Billy Twelvetrees were preoccupied with an unsuccessful finger-in-the-dyke operation as Saracens cantered to three tries. They also embarrassed the Cherry-and-White pack by pushing them off their put-in and earning a penalty in the third quarter when the visitors – with Steve Borthwick and Billy Vunipola in the sin-bin – had a pack of six forwards and Barritt as an emergency flanker. It led to Gloucester’s fifth loss in seven Premiership home matches. The club’s hierarchy have moved decisively to recruit top front-rowers Richard Hibbard and John Afoa for next season but there is significant disquiet over the current form.
The domino effect of domination helped Alex Goode at full-back for Saracens to produce some of his dancing, thrusting best. Jonny May’s candidacy as an England wing went unproven. And in any case the challenge for any selector, club or country, is to judge correctly a formline involving the likes of Worcester and Gloucester against what might be needed to outdo Toulouse or France.
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