The reigning European Champions Saracens opened their account with a 57-13 demolition of Northampton Saints on Sunday. They emerged from round one undoubtedly the standout team and look the frontrunners for European Glory this season.
The win at Franklin’s Gardens was Saracens’ 19th consecutive victory in Europe. Their run spans over three seasons. Conversely, it condemned Saints to their heaviest defeat ever at the Gardens. Saracens are a team that know better than most how a good start in the competition builds early momentum. Last year’s Toulon victory highlighted that and gave the Premiership side the impetus to get stronger as the tournament progressed.
Eight tries on Sunday, including two from newcomer Liam Williams, disbanded any notion of competition lethargy following their final heroics over Clermont back in May. Defending the cup is always made more difficult the following season – expectation creates pressure. But this is a Saracens side that use this to their advantage.
Very few sides in the competition look like beating Saracens. But there were impressive wins for La Rochelle and Ulster.
Attack and Defence
Saracens match their attack with an impenetrable defence. Sarries’ back-three are a threat anywhere on the pitch. Owen Farrell will punish any side with ball in hand as well as with the boot. In the forwards, from one to eight, every player is a line-breaker and can gain invaluable yards.
Even with the experience of George Kruis and Maro Itoje, young players like Nick Isiekwe slot in seamlessly. Isiekwe is a bright prospect and led the charge on Sunday. He accumulated the most metres and clean breaks of any of the Saracens forward pack.
Defensively, communication is key and Saracens are one of the best in the business in defending after long spells in attack. With a tackle completion of over 90% against the Saints, it underlines their ability to remain in control even without the ball. Both Kruis and Itoje, reliable as ever, emerged as Sarries’ top tacklers, with twelve and nine respectively.
The 8 tries will get the plaudits.
But the 91% tackle completion is what sets Saracens apart.
— Paul Williams (@thepaulwilliams) October 15, 2017
Pack Key to A Third Title
Saracens’ pack will provide the pivotal piece in the Champions Cup puzzle this season as they chase European glory again. We’ve already seen the rewards of bringing in Dominic Day and Calum Clark. Their breakdown work is exemplary and are able to push defences with their ball carrying.
In Will Skelton and Christopher Tolofua, they have the power and brute strength to keep defences retreating. With some big French sides in the competition it’s a tactic that works very well, particularly in the final quarter when fatigue kicks in.
Over Before It Has Started
Last year’s finalists Clermont nearly succumbed to defeat at Ospreys. Similarly Toulon could only beat a strong Scarlets side with the smallest of margins.
Despite a Top 14 crown last season, Clermont’s league struggles this season was evident in their laboured performance on Sunday. Both Ospreys and Clermont will face Saracens in the pool stages. Both are likely to struggle with the quality the English side can unleash. Ospreys’ trip to Allianz Park in round two this weekend could all but seal their fate regarding progression.
Toulon aren’t the side they were and like Clermont have been off the pace in the league. Even at home, where the Stade Felix Mayol was once a fortress, teams like the Scarlets have the confidence to push Toulon all the way.
One of the most surprising results of round one was Munster’s 17-17 draw at Castres. This was not the start Rassie Erasmus would have wanted for his side and could prove the difference between a home or away quarter final.
Exeter Chiefs are a side that have made no secret of their desire to push hard in the competition. The Chiefs have the squad and ability to progress to the knockout stages. In comparison to sides like Saracens, they don’t have the competition experience in the latter stages that can play its part in progressing to finals.
Fate of Pool Two
It’s important to note the likelihood of these teams’ impending improvement over the course of the campaign. But the bar has been set by a side looking for their third consecutive European title. From that perspective, the competition could well be over before it has even begun – Saracens’ level of consistency will be under the microscope as the competition continues.
We may only be one round in, but Saracens, by far, look the team to beat. With two home games to come in rounds two and three, the fate of pool two may be sealed before Christmas.
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