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'I just have a feeling things are coming together at the right time for us'

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Maro Itoje has more than a hint of menace around him this week. It was as early as Wednesday when he tweeted ‘Ready for the weekend’ and he was then defiance personified all the way through a Thursday grouped media Zoom call, leaving none of the dozen journalists who were hanging on every Itoje word in no doubt that Saracens are coming to Dublin on Saturday to do a job on Leinster – just like they did 16 months ago in Newcastle. 

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Much has changed since that May 2019 showpiece. Saracens’ reputable reputation has been sundered by the salary cap scandal that will see them drop into the Championship for 2020/21, a punishment that is the major factor behind why so much of their matchday 23 for the Aviva Stadium is so very different.   

For instance, Liam Williams and Nick Tompkins are now in Wales, Alex Lozowski and Titi Lamositele in France, while Ben Spencer and Nick Isiekwe are at rival Premiership clubs – that’s a lot of quality beef to have packed up and shipped off. 

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Saracens’ Alex Goode guests on All Access, the Rugby Pass interview series, ahead of Saturday’s quarter-final

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Saracens’ Alex Goode guests on All Access, the Rugby Pass interview series, ahead of Saturday’s quarter-final

It’s contributed to why the Londoners have largely been written off for their quarter-final, their European chances seemingly further diminished by the dreadful red-carded tackle that resulted in Owen Farrell’s suspension.

Itoje, though, was having none of the pessimism, his demeanour ahead of the crunch last-eight tie all full-on determination, the sort suggesting that the vice-like grip Saracens have on the trophy they have won three times in the past four seasons won’t be easily loosened. 

Vice-like is emblematic of Itoje’s style. Take his shirt tugging – when he grabs a hold he doesn’t tend to let go. Just ask James Ryan, his second row opposition this Saturday, and CJ Stander. They were the pair of Ireland players Itoje relentlessly held on to while in a two-on-one wrestle for England seven months ago at Twickenham.

He pulled Stander’s jersey over his head and nearly did likewise to Ryan in an extraordinary show of belligerence while he was lying on his own back on the ground. Now he is ready to sow it into the Irish once more.

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Asked Itoje where he would rank in the pantheon a Saracens win over Leinster and he demurred. “I don’t know. Let’s win and I’ll tell you afterwards,” he said.

Living in the moment is very much his thing. “There is no doubt that Leinster are the form team, they are extremely well-coached, have done really well. They have a lot of very good players within their system. They are leading the way – but we have got a special team here. 

“We have got some special individuals and some big characters who love these types of games, who relish these opportunities. Since the resumption, we have been up and down, but I just have a feeling things are coming together at the right time for us. 

“Every week before I come into a game week I do my analysis and I was looking at our team and it’s just another reminder of we have a very, very good team. I was looking at the names on the team sheet and it was a further reminder we have got a serious team. 

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“We just need to put it all together and we will be fine. We have had players go, we have had players come in, we have had changes in personnel, but it’s never ever only one player that makes the difference, it’s always a team effort. There are always guys buying into the system and it creates something special.

“This week has been really good, there has been good energy, a good vibe around the place. The camaraderie, the vibe around training has been really good and there is really huge excitement for this game. It has been really positive.

“Owen is one of the best players in the world so we are going to miss him, but he has been a great help too as he always is to every week and his attitude and the way he has approached this from the team’s point of view, we are just really looking forward to the game.

“At Saracens, we are used to competing for trophies, we’re used to competing in all competitions towards the end. Given everything that has gone on in the last 18 months or so, we can’t compete in the Premiership so this is somewhere we can compete. It’s just really exciting.

“It’s knockout rugby, you win or you go home. You win or you’re out of the European Cup for a while. We have had a good history in recent times with the European Cup. It’s a tournament that we love as a group, a tournament we have a lot of respect for, a tournament that we want to be a part of and it’s a blessing that we do have this opportunity this season.

“I’m more excited by new memories. What motivates me personally is what I can do and what I can be a part of going forward, not necessarily things that have happened in the past or that kind of stuff. My energy is directed and motivated by what we can achieve going forward and we have got a talented group, we have got talented coaching staff that can do something special.”

Itoje Champions Cup
Maro Itoje scuffles with James Ryan and CJ Stander (Photo by David Davies/PA Images via Getty Images)

Knocking Leinster off their perch would snuggly fit that category. Not since that St James’ Park afternoon when the clubs last clashed have the Irish side lost a game, their 25-match winning streak culminating in last weekend’s successful defence of their PRO14 title. Now comes their real moment of truth – have they refined their game enough to dethrone Itoje and Saracens?

“We don’t go into games to make up the numbers,” said Itoje, making light of the favouritism now heaped on Leinster even though it is Saracens who still have possession of the European trophy. “We don’t go into games just to participate. We go into games to win. For me, it’s a huge opportunity. I’m really, really excited, really grateful to be playing such a game given the circumstances. It will be nice to get out of the country for a little while to sunny Dublin.

“A different level is required because Leinster are a very good team. European rugby, quarter-final rugby is a step above normal, domestic Premiership matches so a different level is definitely required… I don’t have a fear of failure but it does highlight the importance of this event. This is a hugely important game.

“We don’t have next season for the Premiership or the European Cup. It’s important to do well and succeed but also enjoy the experience, enjoy the event, enjoy European rugby because nothing is really guaranteed. You don’t know what tomorrow is going to hold. It’s massively about relishing the moment.”

He is. 

 

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Shaylen 2 hours ago
Jack Willis' Champions Cup masterclass proves English eligibility rules need a rethink

If France, Wales, England, Scotland and Ireland got together and all changed their eligibility laws in the same way SA has it would be absolutely bonkers. All players from all nations involved in Europe would be fair game as would their coaches. The investment in rugby would be supercharged as teams would rush to create dream teams. Transfer markets would be super charged, salary caps may change, private investment would grow as rich backers first buy clubs and then put money into their clubs in an effort to land the best players. The richest clubs and franchises would benefit most but money and players would move across borders at a steady flow. Suddenly countries like Wales and Scotland would have a much larger pool of players to select from who would be developed and improved in systems belonging to their rivals within superstar squads while their clubs receive large sums in the transfer market. The Six Nations would experience a big boost as the best players become available all the time. The Champions cup would become even more fiercely contested as the dream teams clash. Fan engagement would grow as fans would follow their favourite players creating interest in the game across the continent. Transfer markets and windows would become interesting events in themselves, speculation would drive it and rumours of big transfers and interest in players would spread. All of this is speculation and much of it would not eventuate straight away but just like in football the spread of players and talent would create these conditions over time. The transfer markets in European football is proof of this. Football had the same club vs country debate eons ago and favoured an open system. This has made it the largest game in the world with global interest and big money. Rugby needs to embrace this approach in the long run as well

12 Go to comments
J
Jon 8 hours ago
Waratahs 'counter-culture' limits Wallaby options for Joe Schmidt

This is a bit dramatic for me, I think the Rebels and Force cultures would be very strong, and if a player is chosen from either, you can be confident they are in a good head space and ready. Whether they quite have the technical or tactical foundations of the other two states is where one would way their risk of selection. I see no need for Schmidt to worry about that risk in this squad. The main reason I could see a predominance of players from Brumbies and Reds, is simple cohesion. What might the coaching group make of what’s lacking in the Tahs, and to a lesser extent Rebels and Force’s, franchise? Certainly sides (players) that are running irish plays like we saw from that lovely McDermott long ball with have a head start. I hope the players can continue it at International level. Really liked what I saw of Wright (don’t know player focus and just hadn’t seen a lot of him anyway) in that game, can see him being a glue in a Wallaby side too. A with the similar worry of selecting players like Ryan, I think it unfounded to worry so much about forward balance at the moment. Including both Wright and Skelton in the same lineout is not going to lose you games gainst Wales. Nor will any unknown weakenss Wales might find in Ryan be exploited to any great extent. It is the perfect time to introduce such a young player. What other shortcuts might Schmidt want to make now, just a year out from hosting BIL? When Gamble came on the scene I thought he had a Pocock ability to break game apart along with performing the role of a openside well. I would be very keen to drop Leota/Hooper for Gamble, and in your squad make up, include Uru as a lock. Did you forget to remove Vunivalu from your team? Would you have Meafou in your squad if you could?

114 Go to comments
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FEATURE Jack Willis' Champions Cup masterclass proves English eligibility rules need a rethink Jack Willis' Champions Cup masterclass proves English eligibility rules need a rethink
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