Saracens show why they are the best in the northern hemisphere

Jamie George

It was an astonishing week of European sport for fans. Unfortunately, the chaotic can-you-believe-it theatre came mostly from Liverpool and Tottenham’s Champions League semi-final comebacks – whatever you think of rugby’s round-ball cousin, it is difficult to deny both games were a fantastic spectacle.

For rugby, which had its own European showpiece event in the Champions Cup final between Saracens and Leinster, it was a tough act to follow. Did Saracens 20-10 victory have the sheer drama of those football games? No. Was it still an absorbing, physical and exciting duel between the two best teams in the northern hemisphere? Hell yes.

And that is not to say it did not have its own moments of brilliance. Reduced to 14 men, following a Maro Itoje yellow card, the game in danger of slipping away from Saracens, they clicked through the gears and produced one of the most imposing displays of hard-tackling and gainline-breaking rugby you are ever likely to see. When Saracens are in the mood, few can live with them.

Four players – Brad Barritt, Jamie George, George Kruis and Maro Itoje – topped 20 tackles, while Owen Farrell, Billy Vunipola and Will Skelton made 18. And they were big hits as well, reversing Leinster rather than just getting the man to the ground. It meant that while at times Leinster controlled possession, they were unable to do anything with it as Saracens drove them back with dominant hit after dominant hit.

If Vunipola or Barritt weren’t making yards with ball in hand, it was Itoje or Will Skelton trucking it up. Relentless stuff; Leinster didn’t know where to focus their defensive attention. Vunipola skittling four Leinster defenders before slam-dunking the ball over the line will live fondly in my memory.

This was round two of England v Ireland from the Six Nations, in style as much as country of origin.

What is so crucial about this Saracens team is that everybody operates in unison. They are all reading from the same script (no matter what your personal view of the resulting performance), the players instinctively know their roles and what they have to do for the betterment of the team.

There are still moments of skill and inspiration – they are just clinically timed. Take Sean Maitland try in the final moments if the first half. With the clock red, Saracens had crafted a strong attacking opportunity, a three on three towards the left-hand side. It was by no means a given, the defenders were well set and matched in numbers, but a focus-grabbing dummy line by Alex Goode drew the Leinster players’ attention before Owen Farrell’s no-look speedy flick set Maitland free. Precision skill and execution.

Inspirational at fullback, the newly-crowned European player of the season (again), Alex Goode can add his name to the honourable ‘James Simpson-Daniel list’ of wonderful players deemed surplus to the international team’s coach’s requirements (see also the ‘Danny Cipriani index’).

Or take that moment of defensive inspiration by Liam Williams – flying out of the line with split-second timing to not only stop a Leinster attack dead in its tracks, but get back to his feet and make the turnover.

These are the players and the moments that make champion sides.

It is worth noting as well that 11 out of 23 came through the academy. Saracens are producing a conveyor belt of exciting talent – this is a golden generation to rival Manchester United’s Class of ’92 or the current England cricket ODI team, and I would argue it has yet to truly peak.

I don’t want this to come across as an objectivity-free fan letter to Saracens (and I can confirm they are not my club and they are not paying me, despite those rumblings about financial mischief), but credit where credit is due – this is an impressive team, and an impressive club.

To critique them, they can lack flair. If a team can match them at the breakdown and disrupt their supply of ball they can be a little stilted in attack. For non-purists, they are not always the most enjoyable team to watch. But does that matter? Not when you win, and win as consistently as they do.

Now the question will be, can they back it up? After doing the double in 2016, and lifting the Champions Cup again in Edinburgh in 2017, they crashed out to Exeter in the play-offs the following week, failing to reach the same emotional heights. They have an extra week in their favour this time, with the final round of the Premiership still to play, a home semi-final already secured and a comparatively easy fixture against Worcester Warriors offers a chance to rest some key men.

With this third Champions Cup win in four years, Saracens have confirmed their status as the best English club in European history. They remain a trophy behind Leinster and Toulouse in total, sitting alongside Toulon, however they look like they are just getting started. With Mark McCall at the helm, and new talent emerging from their academy every year to support their brilliant core of players (as well as the odd high-profile signing), they are well placed to be the dominant team in the northern hemisphere for years to come. Now if only we could get a match arranged against the Crusaders…

By Henry Ker

12 thoughts on “Saracens show why they are the best in the northern hemisphere

  1. It is a real shame there is not an international club competition. Who wouldn’t like to see the top two teams from each major league going at it? Premiership, Pro14, Pro12 and Super Rugby. Even if they only did it once ever four years it would be a great rugby spectacle.

    A small note on the conveyor belt of talent coming through the Sarries academy. They smashed Newcastle Falcons in the Premiership Rugby Shield on Monday night 55 – 14. With 18 of the 23 coming from the academy.

        1. Reduce he Prem’dhip by x2 teams, then you could fit in a global comp.. if you want to see whom the best club in the WORLD is.

  2. That doesn’t interest me at all. I couldn’t give a monkey’s about those other leagues and there is too much rugby as it is.

  3. Bah humbug! Self absorbed or what? Stated with true insularity Bert. Are actually interested in rugby, or as it seems, only in yr own? Also wonder, do you ‘give a monkey’s’ about that ‘other league’ comp, the WC?

  4. Well HK, as you mentioned not wanting to come a cross as an objective free Sarrries fan, perhaps it’s because you fear that you do. The article is 95% Saracens walk on water stuff whilst poor old Leinster (whom?! Were they actually on the pitch?) were lucky to even warrent a mention. It was a ‘home’ game for Saracens & Leinster, with the former fwd, Cullen, in charge lacked any backline innovation. As I’ve stated elsewhere & as this article ‘talks’ up, Saracens defence was better than Leinster’s attack. Billy’s intercept & try scoring activities also need to be set against the context of his anonymity v SA, Wales & Scotland, instead of just bigging him up.. again. Likewise, Farrell. That 1 pass for Maitland’s try, when the Irish left their posts instead of holding their positions, was about the only thing of note that he did. Besides with a gap out wide that a Routemaster could have been driven thorough, what else would he, the passer, have done? Kicked it? Taken the tackle? Not really rocket stuff was it? Basic, simple rugby that’s all. As for Saracens containing 11 from their academy, presumably the rest were bought mercenaries then? No surprises there gauging from their past Saffa history & their being hauled before the beak for only the 3rd time in their history of fiscal chicanery. Having stated all that, agree that Saracens are well drilled & cohesive. They are also a team that has to dominate, or @ least have parity up front, in order to effect their still basically R1 game & prevail. As the article also alludes to, hold them in the fwds & their game lacks innovation, or a plan ‘B’. Now where have I heard that before? The issue for the opposition however, is to ensure that they particularly win the breakdown. If they don’t do that, then it’s likely curtains, as it was for Leinster. I expect Sarscens to now go on & win the Prem as well, esp as Ex seem to be tailing off.. don’t they? OTOH, Saracens fell @ the last hurdle last yr & they’re trailing by a few having tripped up more than once this yr, so we’ll see. If Fngland continue to follow their v English blue print though, will it be enough to win them the WC? Again, we’ll see.

    1. Don P, it’s interesting that you talk about Sarries having “bought mercenaries”!! Can you think of a team in Europe which doesn’t have them? Granted the majority of the Leinster team were indeed Irish, but all from their academy? I don’t know the answer, but I doubt it. Sarries are actually now one of the teams, along with Exeter, who are promoting more players from their academy rather than buying in mercenaries. This season they have handed out more debuts in the Premiership than I can recall from my last twenty years in the stands at Sarries. They will, as most teams do, still recruit from outside of the club if they feel it will benefit the club, which makes perfect sense.

      I would love to see a competition between the best clubs in the world to see who is the best. Unfortunately with the rugby calendar we have in place I can’t see that it’s ever going to happen.

  5. Yes, Dazza, Andy too sees recruiting offshore as making sense.. for the recruiting club. However, as Sarries (& other UK/Euro clubs) also have networks, or ‘feeder’ clubs abroad, these ultimately undermine the world game. Despite Saracens having, in more recent times, intro’ed home grown players, last Sat they still had 12 out of 23, according to H Kerr’s recent article, from outside. I read that they were also £1m in debt last yr, so surely more buying can only ratchet this up. Certainly over the last decade or so, they had (still do; Koch, Burger, Rhodes, Barrett) hosts of S African players @ the heart of their club. Also, last Sat there was also only 1 non international in their starting line up. Therefore the term ‘mercenary’ seems appropriate when discussing Saracens’ team composition. If/when a world international league comes into being, then a similar club comp must follow.. or even precede it?

    1. All fair points Don, but I think Sarries and Exeter have proved that a good balance between academy grown and bought in players (from other Prem clubs or overseas) players is the best way to stay competitive. Leicester have struggled without top level players in key positions and have used a lot of academy players this season, and were fighting for relegation.

      Are Sarries four Saffas really breaking the mould in the Premiership? I don’t think so. Both Northampton and Gloucester have recruited cleverly from SA and are sitting pretty in the table. I’m not sure who has the most SA players in their Prem squad, but I’m sure we’re not the only one with four or more? Is this down to SA clubs not offering the same carrot that’s being dangled by Prem clubs? We don’t see a great deal of AUS or NZ players coming over so maybe.

      1. Still looking @ it from a self interested POV Dazza. Unfortunately human nature. In better times, have Leicester had scores of offshore players? Currently they have an England fr row for instance & backs aplenty. However, by shedding more exp’d coaches for the untried & frankly inept Murphy, don’t you think this has more to do with their current plight? There are still a no. of SH/Australasian players in the UK/NH (e.g. Maitland, Skelton, Fardy, Lowes last Sat) & esp in France. More bucks there? Even yr England set up have a couple; Hartley, Vunipolas, Tui, Teo, Roko, Mercer. Ultimately, these players suppress local talent which will worsen in the future. You seem concerned only for yr own in the here & now with little forethought for the future. Disappointing.

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