Saturday 19 January 2019

Sarries can make it a treble - if they avoid Saints slip-up

Courtney Lawes is in serious form. Photo: Sportsfile
Courtney Lawes is in serious form. Photo: Sportsfile

Ian McGeechan

The European Champions Cup is without question the jewel in northern-hemisphere club rugby's crown. When I was at Northampton, back in the early days of the competition in the mid-90s, we made a point of treating it as such. It was always our priority rather than the Premiership. You knew that winning it would confer upon you not only the respect of your rivals at home but the rest of Europe, too.

To my mind it really should be the final club game of the season, as that is the way all the top clubs in Europe think. Saracens may well have done the double again last season had that been the case, simply because it is so difficult to come down from the sort of psychological and emotional high they experienced after their win against Clermont.

Make no mistake, though, if the outcome is the same this year, Saracens will continue to prioritise Europe over the Premiership. A third consecutive win would emulate Toulon. Toulouse are the most successful side in the competition's history, with four wins. When you look at the other clubs who, in their turn, have made an impact on Europe, you see so many similarities in their make-up: strong personalities in key areas, prepared to challenge team-mates and opponents alike and take responsibility for setting standards.

Leicester - Martin Johnson; Wasps - Lawrence Dallaglio; Munster - Paul O'Connell; Leinster - Brian O'Driscoll. Strong men but, just as importantly, surrounded by strong lieutenants. It is easy to forget some of the powerful and influential names who made up the driving core of their successes.

Every year the game has become more competitive and tactically challenging, and it is these teams who kept pushing the parameters, because they are able to approach games with such varied strengths and qualities.

In the last six years it is Toulon and Saracens who have raised standards. Saracens have strong personalities all over the pitch, including their bench. And it does not feel as if they have peaked yet.

That is why I believe Mark McCall's team will be taking this afternoon's match at Northampton so seriously. They know they can win this again and make history. It may be early days in this competition, there may be another five pool games after this one, there may be seven months before the final in Bilbao. But this season more than ever, consistency is going to be so, so important.

There are no gimmes this year. Even Treviso have won three matches in the Pro14 this season, including away at Edinburgh. Whoever wins next May will be able to trace their victory right back to this opening weekend.

Northampton are extremely dangerous opponents first up, especially at Franklin's Gardens. They finished bottom of their pool last year, even with the rampaging Louis Picamoles in the team, but they are one of the form sides in Europe, having rediscovered their mojo since they were hammered 55-24 at Twickenham on the opening weekend of the Premiership.

Saints were caught out at the breakdown in that game, and by Saracens' speed off the ball, particularly in the first half. But once Northampton began to make a few inroads in the second half, Saracens started to make errors. The Saints will have learnt from that and realised what they need to do.

And they are capable of doing it. They have dangerous players. George North is scoring again. Courtney Lawes has some serious form - his time with the Lions really seems to have lifted his game, off the ball as much as on it. His positioning, his game involvement, is massive now.

I'm looking forward to seeing Piers Francis up against Owen Farrell at 10. And I'm very interested to see Maro Itoje playing at six. I think away from home McCall wants an extra man in the line-out to take on Lawes. Play a territorial kicking game which keeps Northampton in their own half, and then challenge their line-out possession, with their extra jumper, thus nullifying one of Saints' biggest threats.

Northampton should take it as a compliment. Although they were a late guest to this party, with that play-off win over Stade in May, they are capable of being serious party poopers in this year's Champions Cup.

They must get ahead - at least eight points - and then try to keep control of their possession and hence territory.

I still think Saracens are favourites because they can control the scoreboard and manipulate the game when it matters. But Northampton are well capable of causing an upset.

And if they do lose, Saracens - for all their pedigree - will be right up against it from the very first weekend.

After today's game they have a home match against Ospreys next weekend, which they should win. But they then have to face Clermont home and away in a double header in December: effectively a European Cup final twice in a week.

That is why the Champions Cup is the best club competition in the world. This fascinating opening fixture for the champions reflects just how tough it has become.


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