Saracens hero Jackson Wray will run out for his 250th game against Leinster in Dublin this Saturday believing his depleted side can pull off a shock for the ages and keep their season alive.
With talisman Owen Farrell suspended and influential players such as George Kruis, Will Skelton, Alex Lozowski and Ben Spencer having moved on since their quarter-final place was assured in January, Saracens face a gargantuan task against arguably the best team in Europe.
However, having defied the odds by remaining competitive in the Premiership in the face of impending
relegation to the Championship, Wray is preparing to mark his own personal landmark by being in the vanguard of a team display to surpass anything achieved before.
Wray, 29, told The Rugby Paper: “I’m unbelievably proud to have played a lot of games and fortunately there’ve been a lot at the highest level in terms of the European Cup and the Premiership.
“This year has been very different with all the challenges we’ve faced, so this is an opportunity now to show what we’re about and go somewhere and make a statement.
“We’re the reigning champions and we’re playing the team we beat in Newcastle last year so I don’t think you can get much bigger than this and we’re incredibly excited.
“We’ve worked hard to be the team we want to be and we’ve put ourselves in a position to make something out of a competition we were potentially not focussing on early on.
“At the beginning we were trying to overcome a 35-point deduction so we rotated in Europe to focus on the Premiership, but then the points deduction increased and the focus switched. We’re not giving this away lightly, whether it’s our last shot at Europe for a year or two or not.”
While Wray concedes the loss of Farrell is significant, he points to the squad’s strength-in-depth and proven resilience in adversity as reasons to believe they can triumph in Dublin.
“Owen’s probably the best fly-half in the world so you can’t underestimate that loss, but we’ve got Alex Goode and Manu Vunipola who have proved unbelievably effective,” Wray said.
“Then you look at what’s around them with Brad Barritt, Duncan Taylor, Elliot Daly and Sean Maitland and what we’ve got up front, so it’s up to us to do what we need to get to the next stage.
“We don’t mind being labelled underdogs, people have done that all season, but you saw in the Racing 92 game at home what this competition means to us. People have probably forgotten that now but we had Will Skelton sent off before half-time and still got the win we needed.
“It’s refreshing going into a game like this that actually means something and we’ve been building to ifat for a long time. It’s a case of going out there now and showing what we can do.”
Saracens will draw additional inspiration from knowing battle-hardened old stagers like Richard Wigglesworth and Brad Barritt are departing at the end of this season.
Wray said: “Over the years we’ve lost unbelievably influential people and this year will be the same. It’s always a challenge but it’s up to the group to give these guys the send-off they deserve, which is massively important, and then it’s about taking that step forward again.
“It’s the responsibility of senior guys like myself to keep things moving on, but first we’ll be looking to go into this game full bore and bring the best out of this current group.”
With a torrid back row contest guaranteed, Wray is ready for the challenge Leinster will pose through energetic men like Jack Conan, Caelan Doris and Josh van der Flier.
He added: “Their pack as a whole are very good at what they do – great set-piece, accurate, physical – and they’ve shown that over the years, so we know the challenge ahead.
“It’s going to be about who turns up in the best shape and we’ve worked very hard to build this game up to where it is and we’re confident in what we can do and the people we have. Looking at the lads, looking at the team we have, why wouldn’t we be confident?”