Saracens have not been beaten since a Champions Cup quarter-final defeat to eventual-champions Leinster on April 1st, with Mark McCall’s team on an astonishing 22-man unbeaten run.
But is this the first genuine test for Saracens? Cardiff Blues had a sniff of an opportunity last weekend when Saracens went down to 14 men after Will Skelton’s yellow card with a quarter of an hour to go at the Cardiff Arms Park. Saracens responded in typical style by extending their advantage thanks to an Owen Farrell penalty and Jamie George try and eventually won 26-14.
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What’s daunting is that Owen Farrell feels that this Saracens team have yet to hit their top gear, particularly in the first halves of matches in recent weeks.
“We want to put out a complete performance this weekend. We’ve won a few games now having not put out an 80-minute performance; we’ve seen it in glimpses but it’s exciting to see where we can take it and hopefully we’ll do a lot of figuring out around that this week”, Farrell told the Saracens website.
Now it’s a trip to Sandy Park. Exeter’s ground hasn’t had its usual fortress-like hold this season, notably in the Champions Cup with a draw against Munster and a defeat to Gloucester. But in the Premiership they’ve held firm at home, kicking off the season with a comprehensive 40-6 win over Leicester Tigers. Another thing to note is that Saracens have not won in Devon since 2016.
— Saracens Rugby Club (@Saracens) December 21, 2018
One of the most compelling areas of this contest will be up front with two formidable front rows; Alec Hepburn, Jack Yeandle and Tomas Francis coming up against Mako Vunipola, Jamie George and Vincent Koch. However, when you analyse the RugbyPass Index the Sarries trio are vastly superior with RPI’s of 92, 91 and 91 respectively, compared to 76, 87, 84.
In fact Saracens dominate the RPI several key head-to-heads including at outhalf Owen Farrell (92) versus Gareth Steenson (86) and at scrum half Ben Spencer (89) up against Jack Maunder (73). Jonny Hill and Sam Simmonds are the only two Chiefs players in the top-10 when pitting the teams side-by-side in the RPI, however both are injured.
There are areas of encouragement for the Chiefs, namely the form of Matt Kvesic and the potency of Santiago Cordero.
There is a sizeable English contingent missing from this contest, Exeter are without their backline duo of Henry Slade and Jack Nowell, while the considerable talents of Maro Itoje or Billy Vunipola aren’t at Saracens’ disposal either.
Chiefs head coach Ali Hepher pinpointed what he expects from the contest to “Both of us will be going full bore at it. It will be very physical and very tactical, but it’s something we are all excited about. For us, it will be a good marker to see where we are at in terms of our performance levels, our general work ethic and how we react in those big-game moments,” he told the Chiefs website.
Hepher has been impressed by Sarries longevity at the top and realises it’s no accident.
“Guys and teams who are at the top are always looking to move forward. The game is evolving all the time and if you stick where you are at, you are going to go backwards pretty quickly. In the case of ourselves and Saracens, both of us have been in and around the top of the division for a while, Saracens even more than us.
“For that, you have to give them a lot of credit. They have a fantastic coaching team and players who are prepared to drive themselves on and on. Equally, we are the same here. We have driven ourselves up the league over the years and we’re in a good position. That said, we have to keep pushing forward, we can’t afford to sit back. We need to be better, not just at this time, but in the future as well.”
Exeter have been burned in the Premiership final twice in the last three seasons by Saracens. Looking at the recent comparative form of the sides, coupled with how line-up’s have been affected by injury it appears that Saracens will still have the edge, and 22 matches will turn to 23.
Exeter Chiefs Team v Saracens
15. Joe Simmonds, 14. Santiago Cordero, 13. Ian Whitten, 12. Sam Hill, 11. Tom O’Flaherty, 10. Gareth Steenson, 9. Jack Maunder; 1. Alec Hepburn, 2. Jack Yeandle (capt), 3. Tomas Francis, 4. Dave Dennis, 5. Sam Skinner, 6. Sean Lonsdale, 7. Don Armand, 8. Matt Kvesic
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