By Matt Bardell
"Here we go again"
The 2018/2019 Champions Cup season is almost upon us and you can practically hear the collective shakes of anticipation across Europe. Potentially the loudest trembles can be heard from north London, where Saracens will be going into the campaign in full belief that they can go all the way.
Last season’s campaign for the Men in Black ended abruptly at the Aviva Stadium against would-be winners Leinster, who dismantled the reigning champions with an impressive performance which highlighted a few flaws in the English side's game.
Since then, however, Saracens have been mightily impressive and have stormed to the Premiership title in May, winning an imposing twenty-nine out of thirty points so far this season in the Gallagher Premiership.
Saracens are unbeaten since losing to Leinster in April, a run which included a record ten consecutive bonus-point victories, spanning two seasons. Despite these results, Sarries are yet to put in a complete performance and it looks as though there is only more to come from this group of players.
The Pool of Plastic
This season Saracens line up in Pool 3, otherwise known as the Pool of Plastic, and can look forward to trips to Glasgow, Cardiff and Lyon on their mission to reach the knockout stages for an eighth consecutive season.
The group stages will see Saracens face some relatively new teams – a quarterfinal match against Glasgow being the only competitive outing against the sides since the turn of the decade. Sarries start off at Scotstoun to face the Warriors, who have started their Pro14 campaign strongly despite a shock loss to the Southern Kings.
The addition to the Warriors squad this week of Petrus du Plessis, who played over 100 games for Saracens (and even featured for Saracens Storm last week) will add even more bite to the match.
Any hopes that their second opposition, Lyon, wouldn’t like the 4G pitch found at Allianz Park (or Scotstoun, or Arms Park) were dashed last weekend when they stunned last season’s Champions Cup finalists Racing 92 at the U Arena. The French side has only lost once this season and in Liam Gill, Lyon have a player who will cause havoc at the breakdown and is a player Sarries have to be aware of – especially considering the way Leinster dominated that area back in April.
The other team in Pool 3, Cardiff, come into the campaign having beaten Gloucester to win the Challenge Cup and will be sure to be tough opposition for Sarries. The form of wing Owen Lane would not have gone unnoticed, and a back row of Ellis Jenkins, Josh Navidi and Nick Williams will provide constant threat and will be looking to provide quick-ball for Gareth Anscombe to work with, in the effort of unleashing talents such as Lane outside him.
New-found pace and returning power
Saracens will certainly be hoping to top their pool this campaign and look to avoid away trips to other challengers. Mark McCall’s men seem to have far more balance about them this season than this time last year with Alex Lozowski presenting himself as a revelation at outside centre and the return to fitness of Michael Rhodes and Billy Vunipola.
Occupying the thirteen jersey, Lozowski has added an extra degree of pace to the side, and the breakdown is in a far healthier state than it was this time last season.
Sarries make no secret of prioritising Europe over the Premiership, and If they can avoid another ‘November blip,’ they’ll be confident of going all the way and adding a third star to their shirts despite the ominous-looking form of Leinster.