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Aviva Premiership Season Preview: Saracens

By Lee Calvert
Alex Goode

Lee Calvert previews the biggest teams ahead of the Aviva Premiership season. This week: the defending champions, Saracens.

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There one was a time when Saracens were a club other fans pointed at and laughed. For many years they had a small following and, despite boasting some genuine world beaters brought by some significant financial backing (the likes of Michael Lynagh, Phillippe Sella and Richard Hill), all they had to show for it was the 1998 Tetley’s Bitter Cup looking very lonely in their trophy cabinet.

Then in the late 2000s cuddly Brendan Venter came in as Director of Rugby, sacking pretty much every player in sight and starting from scratch, infamously signing a lot of South Africans. The divisive Venter also put in place a strong academy that, alloyed with sound off-field structures and a new stadium, has turned the north London team into Premiership champions. Under Mark McCall last year they destroyed everyone in their path like a merciless android army.  Can they do the same this time around?

These days Saracens cop a lot of grief from rugby fans on entirely different grounds. Whereas before it was sniggering at their failures, now it is sneering at their success for myriad reasons such as their casual attitude to the salary cap and their unimaginative, “boring” playing style. Whatever the accuracy of these claims, the fact remains that Saracens are the best team in Europe and this is because they have very good players who make very good decisions at very good times.

 
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They have and all-weather, all-court game that can play tight, loose or tactically in any given match and indeed within any given match. One description of rugby is that it a game decided by good decisions executed well and in this regard Saracens remain streets ahead of most of their rivals. They are not boring, they are simply a bloody good rugby team.

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Their squad is largely unchanged from last season, with the main exits being the retiring Charlie Hodgson and Jacques Burger, but Hodgson was not a starting 10 and Burger, J has been replaced with Burger, S – proving beyond doubt that Saracens have no intention of making themselves more likeable this season.

And for all the shots they take about the salary cap, it is notable that their most of their top performers either came through their academy (Owen Farrell, Maro Itoje, 2016 Premiership player of the season Alex Goode, George Kruis), were unheralded players when signed (Chris Wyles, Brad Barritt) or youngsters from lower divisions (Mako Vunipola, Duncan Taylor). The addition of Scotland’s classy Sean Maitland this season is a good bit of business, and he will fit seamlessly into the Allianz Park system that demands intelligence and ability.

In George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Winston Smith asks the party man O’Brien what the future will be like and he anwers, “Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.”

Welcome to the Premiership in the era of Saracens.

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Last Season: 1st, Champions

Prediction: Champions

Head Coach: Mark McCall

Ins: Schalk Burger (from Stormers), Alex Lozowski (from Wasps), Savenaca Rawaca (from Fiji Sevens), Mark Flanagan (from Bedford Blues), Sean Maitland (from London Irish), Vincent Koch (from Stormers).

Outs: Charlie Hodgson (retired), Rhys Gill (to Cardiff Blues), Catalin Fercu (to Timisoara Saracens), Kieran Longbottom (to Sale Sharks), Dave Porecki (to London Irish), Jacques Burger (retired), Aaron Morris (to Harlequins), Thretton Palamo (to Bristol), Biyi Alo (to Worcester Warriors), Ben Ransom (to London Irish).

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