Inside Line: Why Saracens' statement win over Bristol Bears was so ominous for Premiership rivals

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Saracens celebrate Alex Lewington's try, which capped a fine win at Ashton Gate - Getty Images/BT Sport
Saracens celebrate Alex Lewington's try, which capped a fine win at Ashton Gate - Getty Images/BT Sport

Let one point be stressed straightaway: when it comes to the issue of player availability, there are no hearts are bleeding for Saracens.

Mark McCall’s squad has been trimmed since the club were found guilty of breaching the Premiership salary cap in 2019. George Kruis, Richard Wigglesworth, Will Skelton, Liam Williams, Brad Barritt and many more big names (and big earners) have bid farewell over the past two years.

Still, Saracens could field eight internationals – including Joe Simpson, loaned from Gloucester – in their match-day 23 against Bristol Bears on Friday evening. For an idea of the depth they have retained, here is an alternative side featuring individuals that, for various reasons, were not picked:

 15. Alex Goode; 14. Max Malins, 13. Elliot Daly, 12. Duncan Taylor, 11. Sean Maitland, 10. Owen Farrell, 9. Ivan van Zyl, 1. Mako Vunipola, 2. Jamie George, 3. Vincent Koch, 4. Joel Kpoku, 5. Maro Itoje, 6. Theo McFarland, 7. Andy Christie, 8. Janco Venter

Thirteen capped players punctuate that line-up, and Saracens also have USA scrum-half Ruben de Haas, Fiji prop Eroni Mawi and USA hooker Kapeli Pifeleti on their books.

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All that said, it was a fresh group, full of young academy graduates establishing themselves, that travelled down the M4. And the manner of Saracens’ performance in producing a 27-9 victory was remarkably assured and undeniably ominous.

It was July 13, 66 days prior to the match, that McCall found out Bristol would be his first opponents of the 2020-21 campaign. Saracens’ diligence – and eventual dominance – at Ashton Gate hinted that he and his coaches had devoted plenty of the interim to preparation.

New laws, still streetwise and skilful

The 50-22 is already splitting opinion among spectators. It is clearly affecting team strategy in different ways as well. Frankly, it seemed as though Bristol became fixated on the 50-22 on Friday after Callum Sheedy almost kicked one in the second minute following a turnover:

Engaging in a kicking duel with Saracens rarely ends well. Moreover, Bristol abandoned their chief strength – fluid, fast-paced phase-play – in order to do so. Aerial tennis dulled the atmosphere. All the while, the visitors grew into the game.

This passage begins in the third minute. Sheedy takes a pass from Andy Uren with Bristol wing Niyi Adeolokun on the far touchline, beyond opposite man Rotimi Segun:

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Rugby

Sheedy stabs a trademark kick-pass in this direction:

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It is not a bad decision at all. Bristol kicked 40 times in the game, and this strike at least had a clear purpose behind it. However, Adeolokun cannot gather and Ben Earl scoops up the loose ball for Saracens:

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After a couple of carries around the breakdown to allow them to regroup, a box-kick from scrum-half Aled Davies launches Saracens’ notorious kick-chase. Note than Segun is actually on the near side of the ruck with Nick Isiekwe closer to the touchline.

A line-up of Earl, Alex Lozowski and Nick Tompkins is particularly dynamic. Remember the tackling of Lozowski during the 2019 Champions Cup final against Leinster? He is a fierce defender who racked up 17 tackles against Bristol:

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Rugby

Sure enough, it is Lozowski who clobbers Nathan Hughes after Segun fulfils the role of pressurising Sheedy. Starting on the near side of the ruck gives him a clearer path to the catcher:

Such details will have been drilled by Dan Vickers, who has coached this area of Saracens’ game for years.

Bristol did carve out a 9-3 advantage, thanks largely to avoidable discipline lapses from Saracens. But this kicking exchange, and the visitors’ cohesion within it, was the catalyst for McCall’s men to amass 24 unanswered points. There are few frills or thrills at first, but please bear with it.

Uren’s kick starts things off:

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Elliot Obatoyinbo gathers for Saracens. Meanwhile, Tompkins turns and sprints back to impede the chase of Wales teammate Ioan Lloyd. Davies is close by and Lozowski continues to drop:

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Obatoyinbo kicks himself…

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…and leads the chase. Uren fields and sends the ball back:

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Tompkins has stayed in the Saracens 22. He catches and feeds Lozowski…

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…who kicks down-field. Alex Lewington then moves towards the centre of the back-field with Obatoyinbo retreating to cover the near touchline:

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Rugby

Sheedy moves five metres forward, which puts Saracens chasers onside according to law 10.7b(i), and goes for a 50:22. Obatoyinbo has positioned himself well, though. He catches and passes to Lewington, who clears up the middle:

Adeolokun is next to take a stroke in the rally:

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Obatoyinbo has stayed back and opts to run this time. Adeolokun makes the tackle, but Saracens’ support play is swift. They organise themselves as follows to secure possession…

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Rugby

…and then move the ball wide:

On reflection, Segun may feel as though a pass here could have out-flanked Bristol…

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…but Saracens find more space after bouncing towards the near touchline. All three of their front-rowers touch the ball in this sequence after Lozowski finds Tom Woolstencroft.

The hooker lifts an offload to the outstanding Ralph Adams-Hale, who passes out of contact to Marco Riccioni. Tompkins, a real leader in this match who beat eight defenders from six tenacious carries, then arcs around and Billy Vunipola sends Obatoyinbo down the flank:

Bristol blink first, Lloyd conceding a breakdown penalty:

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Rugby

This moment, where Lozowski kicks away an overlap, was highlighted in BT Sport’s coverage of the game as a mistake:

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Rugby

But it is hard to criticise Saracens for a lack of ambition when they were shorn of front-line players away to such a strong side. Lozowski’s clearance in the screenshot above eventually brought a lineout around halfway following a kicking exchange – a net gain for Saracens.

They were never likely to be lured into a fractured contest. And they made good decisions and showed skill with ball in hand, anyway. The 50-22 should reward multi-faceted teams, and Saracens certainly fall under that category. In the second half, for instance, Billy Vunipola’s strong carry earns a penalty after Chris Vui fails to roll away…

…and Lozowski extends Saracens’ lead to 18-9. Of course, exemplary defence has been a foundation of Saracens’ success for years.

Disruptive, desperate defence

Another seminal moment arrived in the 25th minute when Obatoyinbo and Billy Vunipola combined to force Ioan Lloyd into touch.

As you can see, Vunipola is in the Bristol 22 when Charles Piutau side-steps past Earl. The next man on the scene after Lloyd has been bundled out of play is tighthead prop Riccioni:

Five minutes later, Bristol attempt to go wide from this lineout. The move is read too easily by Saracens. Three players (highlighted by the circular markers) run dummy lines with three more players holding depth to pass (square markers).

All the while, Saracens’ back-line cuts down space:

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From here, as Alapati Leiua feeds Sheedy behind Hughes, watch Tompkins, Dom Morris and Segun. Tompkins slows slightly, with Morris and Segun shooting through with the passes after treading water to make sure Bristol’s dummy runners – Hughes and Dan Thomas – do not receive flat passes:

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The outcome, after Segun has ruffled Piutau, is a Saracens scrum following Adeolokun’s handling error:

Throughout this game, Saracens players geed up one another. At a potentially hostile venue, they created their own atmosphere. Look at the celebrations that greeted this scrum:

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This is another glimpse of their organisation and commitment in defence from the second half. First Tompkins and Morris tackle Vui, holding up the Bristol lock so that colleagues can arc around and into position. Then Riccioni presses up into the eye-line of Sheedy with Adams-Hale felling Piutau in a one-on-one tackle – not an easy task:

These front-rowers were exceptional.

Set-piece strangling

Just as it was in their European quarter-final win over Leinster at the Aviva Stadium, another backs-to-the-wall masterclass, Saracens’ scrummaging was formidable.

They won a penalty following the Adeolokun spill above to make the score 9-6 and their set-piece excellence, honed by highly-rated coach Ian Peel, earned three more points before half-time.

First, 15-cap Italy international Riccioni, who could turn out to be a superb signing, causes Bristol loosehead Jake Woolmore to buckle and turn in:

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From the ensuing penalty, Saracens go to touch and lineout specialist Isiekwe goes to work at a five-man set-up.

Initially, Jackson Wray appears to be the target with Isiekwe and Riccioni lifting. Vui heads towards Ed Holmes to lift his fellow Bristol lock. But Tim Swinson backs up Isiekwe…

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….so, when Wray steps out of the way, Isiekwe is ready to go up. This isolates Steven Luatua and Max Lahiff at the tail:

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Isiekwe controls Woolstencroft’s throw unchallenged…

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…and six Saracens forwards are able to build a maul against two Bristol forwards. Four other Bristol forwards are momentarily out of the game having been foxed by the dummy jump of Wray:

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Lahiff collapses the drive illegally…

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…and, all of a sudden, Saracens are able to draw level. Much later, Lozowski killed off Bristol.

A flourish to finish

Lewington’s try was clinical, rubber-stamping a fine win:

The pull-back from Isiekwe, another star of this Saracens display, is the key. Late and swift, it causes Leiua to stay narrow to look after Wray. That gives Lozowski time to pick his option:

By cutting under the ball from right to left, Lozowski causes the ball to curve away from the covering Sheedy towards Lewington:

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Is that intentional? As a footballer talented enough to be part of Chelsea’s academy as a youngster, Lozowski deserves the benefit of any doubt.  

Saracens sit out the next round of Premiership fixtures before another away game against Leicester Tigers.

They will be beset by absences this season, particularly during the Six Nations. But they relish any sort of adversity, have extremely intuitive coaches and are obviously hungry to mark their return to the top tier with silverware.

Match images courtesy of BT Sport and Premiership Rugby

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