This weekend, I was lucky enough to witness two fantastic matches of European rugby. Thanks to BT Sport, I headed up to Edinburgh to watch the finals of the Challenge and Champions Cups, see how they produce their coverage, and chat to some of the pundits.
Then there was the small matter of some rugby to be played; two Anglo-French finals, one winner from either side of the Channel.
On paper, both English teams fielded an array of talent. I am not suggesting Gloucester are a team on the same level as Saracens, but their match day 23 featured two members of the current Lions squad, two members of the 2013 squad, plus three (four if you count Sharples) other recent internationals from the English and Scottish teams. Plus an All Black.
Yet Gloucester’s performances this season have been the definition of inconsistent. And on Friday, they were out-muscled by a ferocious Sergio Parisse-inspired Stade Français team and left BT Murrayfield empty-handed. On Saturday, the other English side walked away with silverware.
Alas I cannot explain Gloucester’s malaise and inability to perform as the sum of their parts (I posed the question to the match’s commentator Nick Mullins who answered wryly – ‘if there were an easy answer, Laurie Fisher would still be there’).
But more important, is why Saracens keep winning. Of course they have great, even world-class, players, but as Gloucester – or perhaps a better example is Clermont – demonstrates is that talented players don’t necessarily mean cohesion or success. What takes Saracens that step further?
What Saracens have is that intangible quality: a winning mentality. Belief they will triumph. Something they share with the pace-setters of world rugby, New Zealand.
I got the chance to catch up with Lawrence Dallaglio over the weekend and threw some questions his way about this Saracens team. As well as name-checking the ‘outstanding’ Owen Farrell as his player of the year (alongside Joe Launchbury – in Dallaglio’s opinion his Lions omission is purely down to the fact he doesn’t call lineouts), Dallaglio cited Saracens’ inner belief and experience of winning the big matches: ‘if the game is tight, it favours the side that has been there and done it before’. Something that certainly gave them the edge on Clermont.
Credit must go to Mark McCall and his team for imbuing his side with the inherent belief that they will win matches, even when up against it. It probably helps there are players there like Maro Itoje, who can count the games he has lost on one hand, but it is still one of the greatest and most elusive challenges for a coach.
You can see something similar has been created in the past 12 months with the English national team through Eddie Jones – it will have been one of the reasons why he recruited the former Saracens coach Paul Gustard and player Steve Borthwick onto his staff.
Australia legend George Smith said as much before last summer’s test series between England and Australia: ‘England are a form team generating a winning mentality … They are grand slam champions and they’ve got players who were part of the [Saracens] Champions Cup-winning team.
‘You win some games, and your confidence grows, you win some more and your confidence grows, and you become a team that feels invincible.’
Dallaglio agreed: ‘they keep putting themselves in the position [where they can win]. They take it one game at a time, focus on the game in front of them. But they are building an impressive record and momentum. It is testament to their strength that they have six Lions in their team’
I recently wrote an article suggesting Exeter would take this year’s Premiership title. After Saracens’ performance at the weekend I have been forced to reconsider.
Clermont has an enormous pack and gave Saracens serious problems at the scrum – something none of the other play-off contenders will be able to do to the same level. Yet Saracens came through, overcoming this particular obstacle by hooking quick ball and letting the immense Billy Vunipola batter his way back onto the front foot.
I know Kieran Read is considered the complete number 8 and frontrunner in his position, but right now, I would pick the younger Vunipola brother above him in a world XV, such is his impact.
Dallaglio compared this Saracens team to Toulon in their pomp, in terms of dominance in Europe. That side won three Heineken Cup/Champions Cup competitions on the trot. The difference was that Toulon team was built around veteran superstars, brought together as rugby’s equivalent of the Harlem Globetrotters; what is most frightening about this Saracens side is they are just getting started.
The average age of their team on Saturday was 28. However, that figure was boosted by relative pensioners like Marcello Bosch, Richard Wigglesworth and Chris Wyles. Experienced campaigners and integral to the squad, but the superstars of this team are kids in comparison. The pack’s average age is under 26. It is not unreasonable to expect a fairly similar pack could be fielded in the Champions Cup final in 2022. Only Michael Rhodes will be somewhat long in the tooth at 34. This Saracens team is yet to reach its peak and will only get better.
Right now, Saracens are the standard bearers for northern-hemisphere rugby and I see a long and continued period of sustained success for them over the coming years. In knock-out sport competitions, and with the play-off format of the Premiership, no team will win every year, but, as Dallaglio said, Saracens will continue to put themselves in the position.
By Henry Ker
Lawrence Dallaglio was speaking at the Champions Cup final at BT Murrayfield. BT Sport is the only place to watch rugby from the European Rugby Champions and Challenge Cup and the Aviva Premiership.