Mark McCall wants his Saracens team to play “with freedom and without pressure” when they face mission improbable against Leinster on Saturday. The Heineken Champions Cup holders head to Dublin for a behind-closed-doors European showdown with a side unbeaten since Saracens toppled them in last season’s final 16 months ago.
The Aviva Stadium quarter-final is Saracens’ biggest game of a miserable campaign engulfed by their impending relegation from the Gallagher Premiership for persistent salary cap breaches. They will not return to Champions Cup rugby until at least 2022 as a result, yet Saracens can still make the biggest of statements by eliminating a team in imperious form.
Leinster, who have reeled off 25 successive victories in all competitions and won the Guinness PRO14 title last weekend, are chasing a record fifth European crown and their last defeat was almost 500 days ago. “It feels that we’ve got a bit of freedom. Not much to lose, everything to gain,” said Saracens rugby director McCall, who will start experienced Alex Goode at fly-half instead of a suspended Owen Farrell.
“I know the quality of player we’ve got here and everything they have been through together – the highs and lows over a long period of time – and they are very determined to give as good an account of themselves as they can. We want the players to play with freedom and without pressure, and I think we are at our best when we play without pressure.
“That doesn’t mean we don’t want to be in the fight. Knockout games, especially in Europe, are a big thrill. You have a long season when a lot of the weeks feel the same, and then you have one like this where it feels very different. That is something we’ve all craved.”
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) September 17, 2020
While Goode moves from full-back – Elliot Daly wears the No15 shirt – elsewhere there is a return after injury for England prop Mako Vunipola and flanker Jackson Wray makes his 250th Saracens appearance. Leinster welcome back fly-half and captain Johnny Sexton after he was rested to the bench for the PRO14 final against Ulster.
Assessing Leinster’s threat, McCall added: “They’ve played some tough opposition for the last couple of weeks, and maybe our preparation has been a little different to that, but I do think that a quarter-final can be very much on the day.
“Previous form doesn’t always count for everything. Clearly, they are playing very well, but we have a group of players who are very experienced in knock-out rugby. They [Leinster] are not the kind of team that has a glaring weakness, but we have to try and ask questions they haven’t been asked for a while.”
A Saracens victory would see them facing another testing away encounter in next weekend’s semi-finals against one of two French heavyweights – Clermont Auvergne or Racing 92 – who meet on Saturday. Sunday’s quarter-final action sees an all-Premiership encounter at Sandy Park between Exeter and Northampton, while Toulouse host Ulster.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) September 13, 2020
Sign up to our mailing list for a weekly digest from the wide world of rugby.Sign Up Now