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Mark McCall on Saracens' first game 'at this level for 12 months'

By PA
(Photo by Alex Davidson/Getty Images)

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Saracens approach their return to the Gallagher Premiership with cautious optimism despite a tough opening assignment against Bristol at Ashton Gate on Friday night.

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The five-time English champions are back in the top flight after a year spent in Championship exile as punishment for repeated salary cap breaches and are regarded as narrow favourites by bookmakers to reclaim the title they last held in 2019.

Director of rugby Mark McCall knows it might take time to reacclimatise to the Premiership but expects Saracens to be a force at the business end of the season.

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“The truth is we haven’t played a game at this level for 12 months and Bristol will be our first competitive game at this level for 12 months,” McCall said.

“All the teams look stronger than ever before. We’re realistic about where we’re at, but also confident.

“This is a very long season – 24 matches – and we’re confident that we’ll get stronger the longer the season goes on.”

Saracens are missing their British and Irish Lions as they complete their mandatory 10-week stand-down period following the tour to South Africa, but a number of returning loan players are in the starting XV.

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Nick Isiekwe, Ben Earl, Alex Lozowski and Nick Tompkins face Bristol after spending the season in the Championship at other clubs, while Billy Vunipola slots in at number eight and Jackson Wray is named captain.

“Post Lions tour, clubs will start without the Lions players at the beginning of the season, which is an unusual thing,” McCall said.

“I think some clubs are used to dealing without international players at various points of the season, but to start without them is a new challenge.

“So how teams deal with international absences given the length of the season is going to be interesting.”

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Bristol, who start Charles Piutau at full-back, finished top of the regular season in 2020-21 only to fall to an inspired Harlequins in the semi-finals.

“Bristol have been getting better year on year. They’re well-organised and well-coached with lots of incredibly dangerous players,” McCall said.

“If you look at the stats form last year, they were top of everything when it came to the attacking side of the game. Most metres gained, most offloads. They are a team of great danger and it’s a great test for our younger players.”

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