When Saracens were first relegated to the Championship, it seemed a foregone conclusion that the former European Champions would bounce straight back to the Gallagher Premiership. Ahead of their opening Greene King Championship fixture against the Cornish Pirates, some chinks in the armour have appeared after two defeats to their closest contenders, Ealing Trailfinders in the Trailfinders Cup. Is this pre-season cobwebs, or a real concern that Saracens could languish in the Championship for at least another year?
Here are the factors that could pose a genuine threat to their Premiership return:
The Rise of Ealing Trailfinders
It’s been a pretty astounding rise from the Trailfinders after reaching the Greene King Championship just a handful of seasons ago. They have had serious intentions to reach the Gallagher Premiership, even threatening legal action after Newcastle Falcons were awarded promotion ahead of them last year (following the suspension of the league due to COVID 19). Their squad has gradually added recruits with plenty of Premiership experience, including former Harlequin Charlie Walker, and former Leicester Tigers and Wasps man Guy Thompson.
But it’s their fly-half Craig Willis who is their main talisman. Willis created numerous opportunities in the two victories over Saracens, including beautiful long pass Finn Russell would be proud of to assist the opening try in their first battle this season. After Ealing took the lead in both games against Sarries, their defence didn’t fade late in the game as is often expected with underdogs. Their fitness has clearly been primed to go the full 80, ready for their expected play-off final with Saracens.
With the COVID pandemic delaying the start of this season’s Greene King Championship, time only remained for a reduced fixture list. As opposed to the normal schedule, teams will only play each other once, and a two-legged final will determine the winner. After years of Gallagher Premiership funding, Saracens are more likely to have the squad-depth required to win an extensive round-robin league.
If Saracens have an off-day in a play-off final, their squad depth won’t count for much. Saracens will also be without their England contingent for their first two fixtures against Cornish Pirates and Jersey Reds, who finished third and sixth respectively in last season’s competition. With teams only playing each other once, every loss counts, and a slip up in either fixture could create a significant road-block to a Premiership return.
The loss of Alex Sanderson
Across their silverware filled campaigns, Saracens were renowned for their ‘wolfpack’ defence. Opposition feared the waves of black giving them no time to breathe. Alex Sanderson masterminded that defence in recent years, and with him taking the Director of Rugby position at Sale, there could be a difficult transition period. Saracens replaced Sanderson with Adam Powell, one of their academy coaches, after a long history of promoting from within. It’s an admirable philosophy to reward those within your system, but the relatively inexperienced Powell will have huge boots to fill.
If pre-season is anything to go by, the transition has proven difficult. Saracens conceded 15 tries in five games against Championship opposition, including two games where their try-line was breached on five occasions. At times in these games, their defensive looked less unified, with players pushing individually leaving gaps in the line. It is a long shot from the unified waves we have been accustomed to with the London based side. This could just be whilst the club transitions under a new defensive coach, but Mark McCall will hope this is resolved sooner rather than later.
The Set Piece
Another area that Saracens will be eager to improve from pre-season is their scrummaging. The Wolfpack have not been dominating scrums like previous seasons. Undoubtedly, losing multiple front-row forwards, and having Jamie George and Mako Vunipola on England duty has hugely hindered them. Yet this is still something the tournament-favourites will be keen to improve quickly to prevent opposition from having an edge. With ball in hand, Saracens have been carving up opposition defences in pre-season through the likes of outside centre Dom Morris and youngster Andy Christie, but the scrum will need to solidify to provide their ball-players the ample platform.
Despite these challenges facing the Sarries squad, Mark McCall’s team will be overwhelming favourites to bounce straight back into the Premiership. Assuming they reach the play-off final, they will be buoyed by the return of the Vunipola Brothers, Owen Farrell, Maro Itoje, Elliot Daly, and Sean Maitland. Even with these players unavailable, they still have various squad players from their trophy-filled campaigns and a crop of talented youngsters to see them through.
Promotion is expected, but these challenges show that it may be a harder campaign than first expected. This will especially worry the Saracens Board, after their accountants indicated the club could ‘cease to exist’ if they fail to get promoted. It makes Saturday’s visit to one of the top Championship opposition, the Cornish Pirates, an especially intriguing affair.
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