Crashball Rugby writer Matt Bardell returns to preview Saracens' end of season run-in. Can they regain the Premiership title?
Saracens head into May with a home Premiership semi-final already in the bag in advance of this weekend’s game against Gloucester at Allianz Park, and the lack of Champions Cup rugby has allowed them to focus their efforts on their domestic matters. The 2015 and 2016 title winners will have high hopes of lifting the trophy at Twickenham on May 26th but will be all too aware of the dangers of complacency.
Sarries have arrived at the business end of the season in fine fettle, having dismantled London Irish, Bath and Northampton Saints comfortably in their domestic matches in April. To put these three victories into context, Saracens have not conceded a single point during the second half, and have scored 109 in the same period. Impressive statistics to say the least. Despite the results, there remains a thought amongst many that the team are still barely out of second gear and that there is plenty more to come from this squad in the ensuing weeks.
Gloucester will afford Saracens a serious challenge this weekend, even with one eye gazing ahead to their Challenge Cup final in Bilbao next weekend. With the way Johan Ackermann has the Cherry and Whites ticking of late, we should be treated to a fantastic afternoon of rugby in North London.
Key men in, key men out
Although Sarries are resting a few players ahead of the semi-final, with British and Irish Lions Mako Vunipola and Jamie George only required from the bench, the Saracens 23 still looks a formidable side and sets quite a marker for the rest of the play-off teams. Club stalwart Richard Wigglesworth, who has made 210 appearances for Saracens, acknowledged earlier this week that big players are coming back at the right time. The return to fitness of Vincent Koch and Michael Rhodes (plus potentially Billy Vunipola and Duncan Taylor for the playoffs) suggests that Sarries are about as strong as they can be at this stage in the season.
Saracens’ hopes will still rest a lot on the fitness of Billy Vunipola. Mark McCall has insisted it’s nothing serious and merely a precaution; however, it’s natural to fear the worst when it comes to Billy considering his history. What the Australian-born barnstorming number eight offers Sarries is absolutely integral to their (and England’s) form – and although Sione Vailanu, the obvious like-for-like replacement, is seemingly fit, he once again misses out against Gloucester. It seems to be that the coaches don’t trust him, although equally, it is very difficult to leave Jackson Wray out of the side. I, amongst others, feel that Vailanu has a lot to offer Saracens this season.
Up at Kingston Park, Newcastle face Wasps to decide Saracens and Exeter’s play-off opponents, and Sarries fans will be keeping an eye on how that particular fixture unfolds through the afternoon. Saracens have beaten both Wasps and Newcastle home and away this season, although as we all know play-off games do not always follow the form guide. Sarries will be only too aware of this having lost home semi-finals and won away semi-finals in recent years, so they’ll need to bring their A-game to Allianz Park on May 19th.
You have to go back to 2014 for the last time Saracens ended a season trophy-less, of which consisted two painful defeats in European and domestic finals. Most will predict a home win in the semi-finals for both McCall’s men and Exeter and if the former are to march to Twickenham on the 26th May, last season’s semi-final defeat at Sandy Park will certainly provide all the motivation needed to mount an all-out assault in the ambition of lifting the Premiership trophy.
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