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FEATURE Mick Cleary: 'One thing is for sure – Saracens will not go gently into the night.'

Mick Cleary: 'One thing is for sure – Saracens will not go gently into the night.'
3 weeks ago

Sport doesn’t tend to do sentimental Last Dances, ceremonial send-offs designed to tease tear ducts and pluck heart strings. Martin Johnson didn’t get it all those years ago when Leicester were in their pomp and the great man was deserving of a fond farewell. Not that he ever saw things that way. Nor does Owen Farrell. And that’s what makes Saracens so dangerous as they head to Franklin’s Gardens on Friday night. This is business, stuff to be done.

There will be plenty of time for cheery waves and emotional back-slapping as Jurgen Klopp is finding out at the moment. But he – as with Farrell and departing chums such as the Vunipola brothers – would much rather be out there preparing a team for a Euro final than self-indulgent communal adieus. There is only one acknowledgement that matters for an athlete and that is the scoreboard, the ready reckoner of what a sporting life has been worth.

Farrell himself has insisted that the team will be ‘on it.. (and).. at it,’ come kick-off time on Friday, a state of readiness that ought not to need saying. However, it does. And that tells you all you need to know about the defending champions this season. They have been anything but Saracens-like – consistent, on-message, intense and engaged. Instead they have been fitful and fretful, drifting and lacklustre at times, notably when subsiding to Sale Sharks so limply only a couple of weeks ago in their last appearance at the StoneX, not only spoiling a last turn round the floor for Farrell in front of home supporters but also consigning Saracens to an away trip against the table-topping Saints.

Owen Farrell Fin Smith
Owen Farrell will hope to use his superior experience to outwit his opposite number, Fin Smith (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

That once well-known Saracens identity has frayed round the edges. But that does that mean that they are no longer capable of reclaiming their old selves. They have a storied history behind them – and, yes, ‘behind them,’ may well be the relevant phrase – with three European crowns and half a dozen Premiership titles to their name. There is, however, a sense of the changing of the guard about them. How could there not be with Farrell, boy and man a Saracen, on his way along with several other grandees of the club?

It was fitting that another stalwart, Brad Barritt, was on the premises earlier in the week, arriving without fuss or fanfare, very much in the manner that the former captain performed on the field for club and country. Barritt once recounted for us the list of injuries he had sustained on the rugby field. There was a grave danger that we were going to miss deadlines as the litany of mishaps endured went on and on. No pain. No gain and all that.

One thing that is certain about tonight’s encounter, is that the fighting spirit, that refusal to yield, will be back in play.

Saracens still have that sort of attitude within their DNA. It’s there in Farrell. It’s there in Jamie George. And in Mako. There may have been a dilution in evidence on the field at certain junctures – and even Mark McCall is at a loss to explain quite why – but the one thing that is certain about tonight’s encounter, is that the fighting spirit, that refusal to yield, will be back in play.

That there is so much tantalising speculation as to whether England’s most garlanded club over the last decade can buck the trend and record a rare away win in a semi-final crystalizes just why the play-off format has particular appeal this season. Both games have a genuine air of a contest about them despite the historical imbalance that has seen only one win on the road in the last eight years, Harlequins seeing off Bristol at Ashton Gate in 2021. That pattern of advantage to the home team is fair enough given that they have finished first and second, a built-in corrective to the seeming unfairness of the third and fourth-place teams (Sale Sharks and Saracens) finishing behind them in the regular season yet still with a shout of the title.

Elliot Daly
When Saracens have been on song they have been sublime but they have hit plenty of duff notes in an inconsistent season (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

I used to hate the play-off system, hated the intrinsic nonsense of eight months hard labour and achievement being shoved into a two match, winner-takes-all event, the marathon reduced to a frantic sprint. There is little reward for finishing top of the pile, apart from that home seeding in the semi-final. But the fact that the domestic and international season is such a mish-mash of fixtures and availability (it’s been less of a lop-sided structure this season although non-test players had a long lay-off during the test windows) lent validity to an end-of-season decider format where everyone is on the roster and ready for action.

You could argue that with the Premiership reduced to ten clubs the very fact that the club in seventh place approaching the final weekend could make the play-offs and therefore potentially finish as champions would make a nonsense of having a league in the first place.

The Premiership is in need of an overhaul on so many fronts. It’s not a good look for claiming blue-riband status if both away clubs have cause to return a slice of their ticket allocation.

All the caveats are true. The Premiership is in need of an overhaul on so many fronts. It’s not a good look for claiming blue-riband status if both away clubs have cause to return a slice of their ticket allocation. It’s not as if Franklin’s or the Rec has the capacity of the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. They are small venues by comparison with football or even for that matter with the Top 14 where the semi-finals  are hosted at a neutral venue, Bordeaux as it is for this season.

And yet, with no relegation, the Premiership has lacked a certain dramatic edge. Sure, there have been some humdingers and the battle for the play-offs was engaging. But, as the season stretches into the (supposedly) summer months – and how daft the decision was to play on into June – there is a need for club rugby to have its day in the sun, metaphorically more than literally. It needs a stage on which to showcase all the good things that have been happening, the verve of the Northampton attack, the magic of fly-halves such as Finn Russell or Fin Smith (Farrell has been busy and creative, too), the sheer will and cleverness of Sale with their late push into strident contention, the end-to-end action and on and on. Yet such glad tidings have been swamped by football stories, relegated to down-the-page billing. Here is a raison d’etre for the play-offs, even if a Friday night kick-off is not the best for newspaper coverage nor for travelling supporters.

Billy and Mako Vunipola
Billy and Mako Vunipola could bow out of English rugby after stellar contributions to Saracens (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

And what of Saracens? Northampton are in the box seats, of course, but write off the defending champions at your peril. They will come fully tooled-up, ageing warriors and young thrusters alike. Saracens are in partial transition already and are well aware that dynasties do come to an end as Leicester Tigers and Wasps can testify. No matter the glories of the past, it can all recede quickly in the rear-view mirror. The present owes you nowt.

Whether it’s a patch-up job needed for Saracens or a full-scale overhaul will be crystallised on Friday night. Saracens have a shot to put those obits on hold for another season. One thing is for sure – they will not go gently into the night.


1 Comment
BigMaul 23 days ago

Saracens are made to fall within the confines of the salary cap after years of cheating and suddenly they look human rather than all conquering. That shouldn’t be a surprise.

Of course, this team is still benefitting from the extensive cheating committed by Saracens year on year. But each season that benefit will dwindle (assuming, of course, they don’t cheat again… I’m not holding my breath).

Maybe next year we will see Saracens truly competing on a level playing field with the rest of the league. Maybe.

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