Saracens bid to match Toulon by winning the European Champions Cup three times in a row is hanging by a thread with the holders knowing a bonus point win over Northampton in their final pool match at home tomorrow may not be enough to save them from an embarrassing early exit.
While failing to get out of their pool and into the knock out stages would be one of the worst defences of the title, at least they would know Ulster were even worse in 2000 finishing bottom of their pool as champions.
If other results go their way on the final weekend of pool matches, Sarries can still make the last eight but with Billy Vunipola out with a broken arm and back rowers Michael Rhodes and Jackson Wray suffering hamstring injuries, the fates appear to be conspiring against the double champions. The main cause of their difficult situation were the back-to-back defeats by Clermont Auvergne, the team they beat to retain the Cup in Edinburgh in May.
It was always going to be a tall order to win in France against the Top14 champions but the way Saracens fell 46-14 in the weather delayed match at Allianz Park last month was a massive blow to the club as England hooker Jamie George admitted: “That was the worst performance I have been involved in a Saracens shirt. It was very, very disappointing.
“The best memories I have had in a Saracens shirt are winning those two finals. As an aspiring club, we want to test ourselves against the best.
“We are gutted because we are now relying on other people. We are now not in control of it. Obviously, we are in control of our performance, but we are hoping for stuff elsewhere, which is the most frustrating thing. We are in the position we are in, and we have got to make the most of it, which is going to be tough. Northampton are going to be looking to get one over on us, having had two bad results against us already this season.”
Just to make Sarries task even tougher, after beating Northampton easily in two games this season – 55-24 in the Premiership clash at Twickenham in September and 57-13 in the Champions Cup clash at Franklin’s Gardens in October- they now find the Midlanders in much better form and coming off successive wins over Gloucester and most significantly, Clermont last weekend. That 34-21 victory saw Saints deliver one of their most combative performances of the season under new head coach Alan Gaffney, who replaced the sacked Jim Mallinder. Revenge will be the motivation for Dylan Hartley and his men while Sarries have to get that try bonus win.
That brings different pressures and George admitted: “It’s trying to find that balance between knowing that you need to get the five points, but at the same time, you don’t go chasing the game. If you go chasing the game, you get loose, and that’s not how we play the game. We play the game with a good structure.”
Hartley, who will lead England’s Six Nations defence, has been showing improved personal form and said:” We aim to get better and the Cup is a chance to focus on the small things that make the big things work. We turn up for work for another huge challenge against Saracens and we have another shot at playing carefree rugby.
“We are not worried about where we go or who we play and Clermont are one of the forces of Europe and have to take confidence from that win.”
While Saracens have injury problems, Saints are set to recall Wales wing George North to boost their firepower and he will be in opposition to international team mate Liam Williams.