THERE is a good chance that Saracens will meet Gloucester in the second-third place Premiership semi-final, and the manner in which the English champions put Munster away to go through to their third European Cup final in four seasons tells Gloucester just how big a task they face if they have to go to Allianz Park.
Although in a two-horse race any side must fancy their chances, Saracens have the pedigree of proven winners, whereas Gloucester do not.
Saracens have had their ups and downs, particularly during international periods when they lose their star players, but these are glitches where they might lose a handful of games rather than a total shutdown.
What is below Gloucester in the Premiership table is mass inconsistency – and Saracens have not been like that at any time in their recent history. They are too smart in their recruitment, and even when they lose players on international duty they come through strongly.
There’s a buzz of excitement around the Saracens squad that belies the size of their support. Watching the Munster game it was a bit reminiscent of Wasps in their pomp under Warren Gatland and Ian McGeechan, when their support base was tiny set against their success.
Yet, Saracens keep raising the bar. They go about it in their own belligerent style, taking away the game from the opposition. It’s blunt, powerful and destructive – which is how it should be.
You see it in all good teams. With New Zealand you see it in their playing pool of skilled, technically gifted players, whereas at Saracens you see it in the work of scrum-halves like Richard Wigglesworth, and before him Neil de Kock, who are very good at marshalling the game by bringing consistency time after time.
You also see it in the Saracens pack, in a front five that is aggressive and mobile and in a back row that outside Billy Vunipola is not stellar, but is very effective. Jackson Wray typifies this with his work-rate and effectiveness. He fits the Saracens system so well that even if he doesn’t play for a couple of weeks it’s like watching a new link being put instantly into a chain so that it works as good as new.
A few seasons ago I thought Saracens were a bit boring – just, kick, chase, and tackle, and not a lot else. However, that foundation that has taken them to where they are now, and when they went looking for other ways to attack it was if they saw a pinprick of light – and now there is masses of daylight flooding in.
Whereas several years ago their attitude was a very black-and-white ‘we will not play any rugby in our own half’, that has changed. Now, if Saracens see an opportunity from their own 22 they will go for it. They look for more attacking options, and they play what they see.
At the moment they have a variety in their game which means they can either experiment a bit, or, as they did against Munster – and are likely to do in a semi-final against Gloucester – have the attitude of doing the simple things well and taking the quickest route to scoring points.
Saracens aren’t trying to be the All Blacks, they are doing what is best for them with the players they have got. Exeter have taken a similar path, and now Gloucester are trying to do the same.
Under Johan Ackermann the Gloucester challenge has been to blend the old, rudimentary South African strengths with a splash of colour that Danny Cipriani brings in terms of panache, flair, excitement and ambition.
The combination of the direct aggression of the South African game with the invention Cipriani brings means that they are heading in the right direction. Saracens beat Gloucester convincingly in September, five tries to two, but in their next game, which was at Kingsholm during the Six Nations with Alex Goode moving to fly-half for Sarries, Gloucester won narrowly with the try count level at three each.
It may not seem much of a reward for a good season to have to go to Allianz Park for the play-off, but every side wanting to become great has to step out of the shadows. The semi-final gives Gloucester that opportunity, and they will be thinking why can’t we upset Saracens, especially if Cipriani produces magical passes and kicks.
I suspect that the unrelenting drive of Saracens, and the way they are suffocating in their intensity, will make it beyond Gloucester’s scope – even if, like any team, they are beatable.
There are only ever two teams out there, and as you saw with England against Ireland in the Six Nations in Dublin, you cannot discount the underdog.
To beat them Gloucester will have to play their best game. That means a very low error count, very few penalties, dominating territory more than possession, but being very clinical in taking the chances they create.
If Gloucester do that they have a very good chance of winning. However, if they try to play from their own half they will be courting disaster against such an aggressive and effective Saracens defence.
We saw Saracens continue to kick the ball to Munster as if challenging them to show what they could do with it. The answer was not much, because the harder they tried the more mistakes they made, or were forced into. The Munster carriers, like CJ Stander, could not get going, and overall it has not been his season.
Gloucester’s big players will have to stand up and shine. The best way to do that is by not making mistakes.
You don’t have to be flash to be winners. There is a great call for entertainment, but when it gets to semi-finals and finals it is about understanding how to win – and Saracens have that understanding.
I doubt that there are many Saracens supporters saying they would swap all the trophies in their cabinet over the last few seasons if they could play like Wasps.
Even though there are always sporting upsets, they are the reigning English champions, and they are likely to be at home. That’s why the majority of rugby fans will have Saracens as favourites to win a semi-final against Gloucester, and to stay in the hunt for more silverware.
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