Saracens took their latest step towards a historic double-double last weekend by seeing off European heavyweights Munster with consummate ease, having come within seconds of keeping the Irish side to scoring just three points, and equalling Leinster’s unbeaten record in this competition in the process.
The reigning European Champions Cup holders will attempt to retain their crown against Clermont Auvergne in Edinburgh on 13 May, and if they should do so they will set a new record of 18 consecutive matches in Europe without defeat. That they have already secured their place in the Premiership semi-finals with two rounds to spare is even more impressive, and regardless of if Mark McCall’s side face a home of away play-off, they will go into the post-season as favourites.
So why is it then that they still don’t get the credit that they deserve?
Gone are the days when Sarries battered teams into submission with a combination of resolute defence and smart kicking, as the recent wins over Bath and Glasgow Warriors displayed, and their squad has an appealing blend of an English core and unheralded foreign talent, not to mention their current director of rugby being one of the best in the game.
They took the bold decision in 2012 to leave Watford’s Vicarage Road stadium and create their new home at Barnet’s Copthall Stadium that is now fortress that is Allianz Park, while the club have also worked hard to steadily increase the fanbase that has seen the 4,000 attendances in Watford banished to the past and the 10,000 and 15,000 that attended those games against Bath and Glasgow respectively become something of a regular sight.
Maybe that’s where the issue lies though. Saracens are not afraid to move their games to Wembley Stadium, where attendances of more than 80,000 have been recorded even though the majority are simply there for a fun day out at a relatively low fee. That means the ferocity of The Rec, or Kingsholm, is a notable absence from their repertoire, but the club are slowly expanding their fan base and a third European final appearance in four years will only help that.
Is there a degree of jealousy from other fans? Yes, certainly. But after all, this is not contained just to Saracens. Martin Johnson’s dominant Leicester Tigers side were very much disliked by anyone not wearing a green, white and red jersey simply because they won so often, and normally by overpowering sides with their brilliant forward back and hard-hitting back line. This was very much the initial Saracens approach, but what has been particularly about Saracens this season has been the ability to teach old dogs new tricks.
Those old dogs, as much as they would argue against it, are centres Brad Barritt and Marcelo Bosch, who have both forged reputations for being direct runners with a game based on strength and a defend-at-all-costs attitude. Yet this has also been the centre pairing for the performances since the end of the Six Nations that have been nothing short of sublime, and both have developed how they run without the ball, cutting clever lines that causes confusion among defences and brings Chris Ashton, Sean Maitland and Alex Goode in the fray.
This style has certainly garnered more praise for the Men in Black, so it was peculiar to see such a mixed reaction to their victory over Munster on Saturday. Yes, Saracens went back to basics and relied on their herculean defensive effort to keep the Irish side out for 79 minutes, but Munster were hardly chucking the ball around with reckless abandon either.
In fact, Munster made more kicks from hand, fewer clean breaks and made fewer metres per carry than Saracens, who also outscored them two tries to one. That Munster were given a standing ovation at the end of the match for what they have been through this season was deserving, but so was an appreciation for just how good a club Saracens have transformed into since their days of fighting the likes of Leeds and Rotherham in a relegation battle – look where those clubs are now compared to Sarries.
They have the money behind the scenes that makes a lot of this success easier, granted, but then there is much, much more to the Saracens approach that has resulted in a sustained period of being the best team rather than becoming a collection of individuals who crumble under pressure.
This approach has also bore fruit for England, with no fewer than 10 England internationals past and present starting in the win over Munster, with Eddie Jones basing his side on a similar, physically dominant approach that allows his side to cut loose once they have breathing space. That may also come in handy for Warren Gatland this summer, although time will only tell if the British and Irish Lions head coach tries to tap into the ‘Sarries Six’, the half a dozen players heading out to New Zealand, who would go a long way into helping implement the same attitude and character that the club have shown.
But for now, rugby fans in England and Europe should perhaps appreciate a side that is up there with some of the greats, and the problem for their opponent is this squad is still young enough to get even better. Now there’s a daunting thought.