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'Have you ever seen him warm up? You should watch his warm-up'

By Liam Heagney
Saracens' Juan Martin Gonzalez at Ashton Gate (Photo by Bob Bradford/CameraSport via Getty Images)

Saracens boss Mark McCall jumped onboard the bus back to London on Saturday night singing the praises of Juan Martin Gonzalez. The Argentine back-rower was immense in the Gallagher Premiership champions’ 41-20 Ashton Gate raid, disrupting the Bristol attack at a time when it appeared that Pat Lam’s side could run away with it having established an early 3-13 lead.

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He finished with a lung-bursting, chart-topping 23 tackles but the 23-year-old was also supreme on the ball, linking to give Maro Itoje an assist for a first-half try and then running the support line to collect a pass from fellow countryman Lucio Cinti to score the bonus-point try on 66 minutes.

It was last June, amid the fall-out from the collapse of London Irish, when Saracens snapped up the Pumas Rugby World Cup pick and his switch to North London has been a success with both him and Cinti agreeing to contract extensions in March.

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As brilliant as he was on the pitch, director of rugby McCall offered a tip about the Argentine’s pre-game preparation that immensely adds to what he then goes on to achieve when the match whistle blows

Invited to sing the praises of arguably the best bang for buck 2023/24 signing across the 10-team league, a smiling McCall replied: “Have you ever seen him warm-up? You should watch his warm up. It’s like he has played a match.

Player Tackles Won

1
Juan Martin Gonzalez
22
2
Tom Willis
20
3
Ben Earl
17

“I am saying to our S&C guys, he shouldn’t be doing as much as he is doing but he has got his own way of preparing for a match and I have never seen him give anything less than 100 per cent. He is a great addition to the squad. Lucio as well and they are both highly respected by everyone.”

Also impressive was the Saracens rush defence which tempted the Bears to kick rashly or else make too many handling errors.

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Brendan Venter, the South African who laid the foundation a decade and a half ago that McCall and co have lavishly built on, was with them for the past week on one of his quarterly visits.

As nice as it was to catch up with his old boss, who was decked out in club gear and with the coaching team in the Lansdown Stand for the game, McCall was keen to give assistant Adam Powell the kudos for a rearguard job very well done.

Especially when limiting the damage while reduced to 13 players for eight second-half minutes due to yellow cards for Maro Itoje and Ben Earl.

“Brendan is a brilliant advisor to one and all when he comes. He comes four, five times a year and he injects energy into the building and wiseness and can see stuff from afar that maybe we are not doing as well as we could. It’s always wonderful to have him.”

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Did he finesse the defence in the build-up? “No, no, but having been a defence coach himself down the years, for the young, up-and-coming brilliant defence coach we have in Adam Powell, he is a very young man and has someone like Brendan helping and guiding him.

“That (defence versus Bristol) was all Adam’s but having Brendan to lead on during the week was good, especially against a team like Bristol who run the ball in the manner that they do,” explained McCall, who added Venter won’t be around for next weekend’s home clash with Sanderson as he was flying back to South Africa this Sunday.

Saracens head into the final round of the regular season placed second and while they are qualified for a June 1 semi-final, they need a result versus the fourth pace Sale to secure knockout stage home advantage.

As good as they were in Bristol in taking their winning streak in the league to six games, McCall is taking nothing for granted against an opposition guided by his former Saracens assistant Alex Sanderson.

“You assume nothing,” he insisted. “Just because you did it today it doesn’t mean you do it next week. I watched Sale Friday night, they are a hell of a challenge to play against so you have got to prepare really well.

“You have got to do your homework but if you play in the spirit we played the last couple of weeks, we will always have a chance against anyone.”

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