Mention the 2011 Premiership final to a Saracens fan and you witness a wry smile as they re-live all the emotion from that day. And what an occasion it was for them, as they defeated Leicester Tigers 22-18 in a wonderfully dogged performance. Four years on and they are yet to repeat such success. Yet for all the shortcomings and criticisms, here we are again with Saracens in the final. What made them tick back in 2011 continues to do so – team spirit, a pinpoint goal kicker, and their infamous ‘wolf pack’ – evident in their arrogant dismantlement of defending champions and table-toppers, Northampton Saints in the semi-final. It was clear that the Saracens of yesteryear have made their perfectly timed return.
Only nine of the match day 23 from that day will play a part this Saturday. Images will undoubtedly have been projected around the training ground all week – ones of elation, pride and celebration – in an attempt to stir the weary bodies from the exhaustion of the previous weekend’s upset of Northampton.
They will have had to dwell on last year’s agonising final defeat also; the emphasis being on the difference in emotions. Which side do you want to be on? – Mark McCall will have queried constantly throughout the week like an annoying conscience.
This weekend they will meet toe to toe with a less experienced, less spirited, but more dynamic and exciting Bath side at Twickenham in the showpiece of English club rugby. It will take a similarly gutsy performance for Sarries to overcome the marginal favourites, but for a side that delights in going off script, it will be a challenge that they will gleefully accept.
With their bullish physicality, lightening quick defensive line, and powerful rolling maul, Saracens’ biggest weapon is most certainly their wolf pack. At the heart of it are Springbok Alistair Hargreaves, openside flanker Jacques Burger, and England’s larger than life No.8 Billy Vunipola. These three bruisers have stood up and delivered this season in the biggest of matches, from the Champions Cup knockouts to key Premiership fixtures. The question on everyone’s lips is whether Bath will cope.
Although all the talk this week is of Bath’s outside backs, Saracens’ three quarter line poses such a threat too. David Strettle and Chris Ashton are the two deadliest finishers in the league (hint hint, Stuart Lancaster) and will be sniffing like moles at any opportunities that Bath’s defence offers up on Saturday. Inside them will be the equally afflictive Chris Wyles – the American has chalked up seven tries in his last seven fixtures. It is certainly not a backline devoid of ideas or finishing ability.
If Saracens opt for their effective kick and chase tactic, it will have to be executed to perfection. Bath boast dangerous counter-offensive threats from deep – Anthony Watson, Semesa Rokoduguni, Matt Banahan and George Ford combine power, pace and vision to devastating effect. These four, along with Kyle Eastmond, Jonathan Joseph and Peter Stringer, prized open an uncharacteristically flimsy Tigers defence in the semi-final, not once, not twice but seven times in a 47-10 demolition. Luckily, Saracens have Mr. Defence, Brad Barritt, commanding the front line and he and his mates will surely be tested numerously throughout the afternoon.
If you’re fortunate enough to have a ticket for the final, you will be in for a treat. It will certainly be intriguing watching Ford, Joseph and co. attempt to pick holes in a physical and disciplined Saracens defence. Picking a winner is virtually an impossible task but should Saracens draw on their past experience in the key moments in the match, and give Bath few to no penalties or space to roam with ball in hand, they will shade an extraordinary Premiership victory that will freshen up old memories of Saracens success.