On paper, there’s no getting away from the fact Saracens are favourites. They’ve won the league outright, got to the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup – and been the form team all season. Yes, they’re missing Billy Vunipola and Theo McFarland, but they’re close to full-strength and they have home advantage. Added to that, they’ve been able to rest their key players off the back of that bruising La Rochelle game.
Saying that, an upset isn’t out of the question. After all, it’s happened before. Back in 2014, when Saints snuck in at fourth place, made it to the final and turned over the heavy favourites on the day. Their opponents; Saracens.
Nine years on, with the current crop, if they get things right on the day, they can be lethal, so if anyone can upset them, it’s Saints. If they cut loose and get a few bounces of the ball, they can do some damage on Saracens’ home turf. It comes down to who gets the refereeing decisions and whether one side gets a red card. For instance, what if someone loses a goalkicker – say Owen Farrell is red-carded for a borderline high shot – then it all changes. Likewise, if a talisman like Courtney Lawes comes off with injury or a red card, the odds heavily favour the hosts. Games hinge on incidents like this. That’s the beauty of sport. That darned unpredictability.
I would say going in as underdogs plays into Saints’ hands. From experience, there’s much more freedom to roll in as dark horses than to have the added pressure and expectation of being top dogs. Saying that, Saracens are the one side who almost always have that ability to cope in those tough situations written into their DNA. They have Test quality throughout the squad, oodles of experience and can weather the most disruptive of storms.
One aspect that Saints could have done without is Leicester nicking that Premiership final late on last year. From experience, complacency can creep in, and the hunger subside if you’re champs, but in 2014 we were so fired up not to be the bridesmaids once again. We’d been in so many quarters, semis and finals and not won it, it gave us so much fuel. That hurt from last year will give Saracens that extra bit of steel. The margins that these games come down to are minimal. They lost in 2022 to a drop goal with seconds to go and in 2014, the clock was in the red by a TMO decision and a blade of grass. Owen Farrell is their talisman and the ultimate competitor. He’s driven at the best of times, but you don’t want him turbocharged and hurting from last year.
So where can Saints upset Saracens? Well, we know they can score tries. With 86, they’ve scored more than any other side this season and I saw that they had carried for 1000m more than any other side and were the only side in the Premiership to make 200 clean breaks. We have a great system and some really gifted individual talents in George Furbank, Tom Collins, Tommy Freeman and James Ramm. Fin Smith has also been a real find. Our back three are all proper athletes, fine kickers of the ball and sound under the high-ball – I don’t see many weaknesses.
Fraser Dingwall is a class act. Within the camp everyone values and respects him. He speaks up at meetings, drives standards and holds himself to those standards as well.
Two players I’d like to highlight, who are key to Saints progressing, are Fraser Dingwall and Alex Mitchell. Fraser is a class act. Within the camp everyone values and respects him. He speaks up at meetings, drives standards and holds himself accountable to those standards as well. Outside the camp, when discussing international recognition, people like X-Factor athleticism. The power and pace of Manu Tuilagi, Joe Cokanasiga, or Ollie Lawrence. Basically someone rapid or muscle-bound. Fraser is not that. He’s not a huge physical specimen. He’s not electric-quick but he really, really understands the game. His timing in the tackle is exceptional. He knocks people backwards and chops tacklers through timing and body shape. He’s brave and commits without fear. Offensively, he has great subtly, sharp lines of running and he makes loads of decent breaks, not because he outburns people, but because he has good footwork. In short, he’s a great competitor who is desperate to succeed.
The other is Alex Mitchell. You don’t want to be a lazy forward looking for a break around the fringes of the scrum with Alex on the pitch. He will turn you inside out. He’s got this unbelievable ability to pump the ball backwards and forwards, to put defenders off-guard. He steps at such an acute angle and has an uncanny ability to move up the line so far, goading defenders into committing. It’s like a goosestep, but at a 90 degree angle. The England recognition must have made him grow an inch, but he was already a confident boy behind the scenes. He has the right amount of swagger for a 9. That core group of lads, who have graduated through the Saints academy and into the first XV, are now hitting their prime. It is their team now. You can see how they’ve stuck together. In my last year chasing them around the pitch kept me young. I loved their attitude, and they are good fun to be around.
Much credit must go to Sam Vesty. He implements the shape in the backs. Yes, he wants you to play with a degree of structure but what he really wants is to allow individuals to thrive and flourish. It’s not a structure that confines you, it’s more about allowing you to beat people and attack. It’s not rugby by numbers or planning out three or four phases in a restrained way, it’s more of framework that allows you to find one on one’s or two v one’s and take players on. You know, get big Tommy Freeman on an outside break, or give Furbank a soft shoulder to run at, and get our big ball carriers running hard and straight and popping the ball into spaces with other guys running onto the ball.
Courtney’s reputation speaks for itself. Lewis Ludlum has had a breakthrough 12-18 months with England, while Juarno Augustus can punch holes in defences. Seriously, that pack can do some damage.
Chris Boyd’s philosophy still runs through the side, but he was always very laid-back, and he empowered the coaches to implement their philosophies and game plans. The dynamic has changed within the coaching set-up this season. (Sam) Vesty is also working on defence as well, James Craig has come in to work on lineouts and Matt Ferguson is doing breakdown as well as scrum. I think Phil Dowson will be quietly happy with how things have gone.
Of course, for all the plaudits coming to the backs, the forwards have been slightly overlooked. In terms of reputation, the Saints pack don’t strike fear into their opponents like they did with (Brian) Mujati, (Soane) Tonga’uiha, (Dylan) Hartley and Courtney Lawes. Back then, Saints had a monster reputation as a powerful rolling pack, whereas in recent years, I wouldn’t say that’s necessarily true, but you underestimate them at your peril. Against Sarries, they will have Premiership winner and former skipper, Ethan Waller, who has 350 appearances off the bench. In the engine room you have (Dave) Ribbans and (Alex) Moon, who are pretty big men, with power, athleticism and a high tackle-rate. The backrow isn’t too shabby either. Courtney’s reputation speaks for itself. Lewis Ludlum has had a breakthrough 12-18 months with England, while Juarno Augustus can punch holes in defences, he’s very powerful. Seriously, that pack can do some damage.
As a player you don’t really think like this, but as a Saintsman and local fan, or someone who just has a passing interest in the club, I don’t think they spend anywhere near as much as some other teams. I don’t think their playing budget is ‘top of the league’, in fact, I’ve been told it’s in the bottom half of the league. If they finish in the Top 4 and sneak a semi-final and go onto win the big one, that will be a serious achievement by Phil Dowson and his team. They will deserve every bit of credit coming their way.
If Saints hit their straps, they could do it, but if the best version of Saracens is on show, and they get their kicking right, and Saints don’t turn up, it could get ugly.
The travelling support will certainly make themselves heard. It’s an hour down the M1 and with the weather being decent enough, it will suit us. I think Sarries are better having steel in those tight, brutal moments, while Saints have that flair and electricity to unsettle teams. I’m slightly concerned at their record in the last 20 minutes of games, they will have to see if they can put in a full 80 minute performance.
Who will win? Giving predictions is a mug’s game, it’s the roll of a dice. It could be the tightest game ever, or it could be 40-0 to either side. If Saints hit their straps, they could do it, but if the best version of Saracens is on show, and they get their kicking right, and Saints don’t turn up, it could get ugly.
I cannot wait for the whistle to go.
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