When Saracens lost their semi-final at home to the Saints last year, a sort of stunned silence swept across the Premiership. This was the team that had won two more games than anyone else all season, and had not lost a game at their new home Allianz Park, an arena that was rapidly acquiring the old rugby cliché of ‘fortress’. Their play was precise and calculated – exactly what is needed in knockout rugby, so to fall there was not expected, and a huge blow to the club, who had also already been knocked out of the Heineken Cup.
Ahead of the new season, Saracens Director of Rugby Mark McCall was in a bullish mood and keen to point out that when you take a step back from it, there were lots of positives last year.
“It was just so disappointing that it ended the way it ended,” he said. “We had an unbelievable season up until that point; we came top of the Premiership, we were really consistent, we came top of a very difficult Heineken Cup group, we beat Ulster in the quarter finals – so many good things happened. It’s almost like we saved our worst til last, so that rankles a little bit. You’ve got to take it for what it was – 25 minutes of pretty disappointing decision making and rugby.”
The Northern Irishman, who is set to preside over his fourth season as DOR at Saracens, is confident that things will be different this time around – not that they are going about their pre-season business any differently.
“We shouldn’t panic, and look for things that aren’t there because we’ve got a really good group of players, a really good group of coaches, we had a great season last season, and we just need to finish it off. The important thing is to get to the business end of the season and put yourself in contention again.”
It has not been a manic summer of transfer activity for a club that have spent big over the past few years, but there have been a few very shrewd additions – not least in the sizeable forms of Billy Vunipola and James Johnstone. McCall says the cooling down of their activity transfer-wise is all part of the grand plan at Saracens.
“If you look at any successful club over the course of time, those clubs have always had a core group of people, and we believe we have that,” he pointed out. “Most of our squad is unchanged – it’s only a couple of players that have come in.
“We’ve got 22-23 year olds that were 18 when this project started four and a half years ago and they’ve been with us all the way, so for people like Billy and James it’s very easy to come into a very settled group. That continuity of people is the key to being successful.”
The importance of this season for Vunipola is similar to the size of the man himself – huge. After breaking through at Wasps last year, he has a real chance to cement himself at the back of what will likely be a dominant pack, and push his claims further for a regular England berth after impressing in Argentina. McCall thinks he can follow in the footsteps of older brother Mako, whom he joins at Allianz Park.
“It’s a great example for Billy to have – Mako, when he came here, grasped that what he did at the club and what he did away from the club were equally important, and he got into the best shape of his life and the consequences are there for all to see. Billy’s got that example to follow now.”
Despite his confidence in his team, McCall is quick to point out that there is no such thing as an easy game in the Premiership. He has been impressed with the way other clubs have been gathering themselves in the off season, and predicts a tighter battle than ever.
“You look around the squads, and they’ve all got stronger than they’ve ever been,” he said. “There’ll be more so-called ‘surprises’ week on week, and I think there are a couple of dark horses – Gloucester have been sniffing around that top four for a while, and they’ve got the players who are getting towards the top of their game. Bath, equally, have made a lot of signings, so it’ll be interesting.”
Much has been made recently of the possibility of shifting Premiership games over to the United States, with Mark McCafferty and Premiership Rugby still unable to come to an agreement with their Celtic counterparts over the future of the Heineken Cup. Sarries have, over the past couple of seasons, pioneered the idea of taking games to exotic places, so one would imagine they would be at the front of the queue to take their brand across the Atlantic to the vast American sporting market.
While McCall insists they are, he is also keen to ensure their new home at Allianz Park gets the attention it deserves.
“There’re two things to consider – obviously we want to grow our brand as much as possible, and that’s one thing, but we do have a home now, for the first time in a long time,” said Saracens’ DOR. “Now we have our home it’s tempting to play as many of our games there as possible.
“We’re going to play at Wembley against Toulouse, and I’m sure if anyone’s going to go to America it’s likely to be us. I haven’t discussed that with the CEO, but it’s always possible.”
Whether they travel to foreign lands or not, you can be sure that Saracens’ journey to the top of the league table will be relentless – and do not expect them to be caught out as easily when it comes to the knockout stages. The rest of the Premiership has been warned.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images