Fired-up Saracens have the bit between their teeth once again
Key figures in the pack that bullied Ireland at the Aviva now have Munster in their sights
Saracens: bounced back from the defeat to Leinster last year to claim a fourth Premiership crown since 2011. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Champions Cup semi-finals: Saracens v Munster
Kick off: 3pm, Saturday. Venue: Ricoh Arena. How to follow: The Irish Times liveblog will start from 2.30pm. On TV: BT Sport.
“Tactically there is a lot we can improve upon. There was a mental pressure they put on us and they squeezed the life out of us.” - Rassie Erasmus immediately after Munster’s 26-10 defeat to Saracens in the 2017 Champions Cup semi-final.
The timely arrival of substantial rugby temporarily takes the focus from Saracens’ off-field financial and religious controversies.
More than enough time has passed for their six British and Irish Lions to rediscover the form and fitness that got them selected in the first place.
Mark McCall duly includes the very same Aviva “bullies” at the Ricoh Arena. George Kruis, Maro Itoje, Billy Vunipola, Jamie George, Owen Farrell and Mako Vunipola were each responsible in their own bludgeoning way for altering the course of Irish rugby in this World Cup year.
The club represents the rock Eddie Jones has built any and all English success upon since 2016. Look at the starting pack humiliated at the breakdown by Scotland in 2018. No Kruis, George or Billy Vunipola. Different arena entirely, but a brief detour back to the Six Nations opener on February 2nd is worthwhile to emphasis the task facing Munster.
Keith Earls was removed from the game by Itoje’s knee to the ribs, an act referee Jerome Garces deemed only punishable with a penalty despite stating: “[Itoje] clearly charged the man without the ball.”
The point is not that England targeted Earls, granted he suffered the most under dropping ball, the intent was to damage every single Irish player. This they achieved with Saracens’ wolf pack at the vanguard. The largely ineffective CJ Stander, for example, had his cheekbone smashed.
Nobody scored any points in the opening 10 minutes of the second half but England won the game during this period by suffocating an Ireland team needing to chase the seven-point deficit.
Tadhg Furlong was tasked with carrying to safety but Kruis and Mako Vunipola forced the Wexford man sideways and then backwards when George’s shoulder was added to the wheel. All Saracens, relentless punishment, Kruis and Itoje morphed into Ackford and Dooley (or Martin Johnson and any other for those who only remember giant English locks manhandling poor Irishmen as far back as the 1990s).
There was another moment when Kruis disrupted Devin Toner’s leap at full stretch – a rare achievement – yet still managed to bounce off the grass and hold up James Ryan. George rattled the Irish ruck while Itoje’s fingertips almost blocked Murray. Seconds later Itoje roared, holding one arm aloft, when Garces awarded England the scrum.
Such stark symbolism carries on to Coventry. That victory proved as comprehensive as Saracens’ against Munster in 2017, which conspires to make 2018 seem like a mirage.
But last year did happen. Leinster dethroned the defending champions, winning 30-19 in the quarter-final, a fortnight after Ireland were utterly dominant at Twickenham despite the presence of Farrell, Mako Vunipola, George, Kruis and Itoje on both occasions.
Leinster broke Saracens via three special moments: Garry Ringrose’s early score off a slippery James Lowe run, Dan Leavy’s fantastic try after a one-two with Ryan and Lowe’s finish when Ryan punished Itoje, for attempting to hold up the Kiwi winger, by driving both men over the line.
In short, Leinster matched the English power game but McCall’s team returned home, licked their wounds, before capturing a fourth Premiership crown since 2011.
How they financially constructed such a deep squad – including giant Wallaby Will Skelton and ageing Springbok Schalk Burger – is under serious scrutiny.
Following The Daily Mail story last month about leading Saracens players – including Farrell, Itoje and the Vunipola brothers – sharing “co-investments” with club owner Nigel Wray on top of the £7 million salary cap, the north London club could face further charges having avoided sanctions for allegedly breaching the £5 million limit in 2014.
Last week Saracens admitted to divulging “more information than was necessary” and following a “minor internal oversight” – three words that may haunt the club forever – Premiership Rugby was shown details relating to the “co-investments” with Wray.
“There’s always something that’s going on that people try to find,” said flanker Jackson Wray this week. “We are used to that." Wray warms to the idea that Saracens are the bad guys. "We embrace that.”
On top of this ongoing investigation, the club condemned Billy Vunipola’s support for Israel Folau’s hate speech but before the RFU disciplinary hearing convened, to slap Vunipola’s wrist, McCall stated that the England number eight would not be dropped. In fact, last Monday players and staff decided to turn Vunipola’s homophobic instagram post – which has not been deleted – into a motivational tool.
“Billy’s sensitive, but I think he’s also strong,” McCall said of the booing at Bristol. “We’ve got a group who have been through quite a lot on and off the field over a 10-year period, and I’ve no doubt that we’ll use this in the right way.”
Cornered wolves, these Vunipolas, Itoje and Farrell not only embody Saracens but England’s claim for world domination. Proving they are superior to Peter O’Mahony’s Munster could be the latest stop-off on Farrell’s journey to lifting the William Webb Ellis trophy.
Johann van Graan has made significant changes in personnel and while Joey Carbery is an enormous loss, Tadhg Beirne and Chris Farrell strengthen the team that failed to cope in 2017 and the leaking defence against Racing 92 in last year’s semi-final has been plugged.
Now about those bullies.