CONNACHT HAVE ALREADY faced giants like Toulouse, Harlequins and Biarritz in their two seasons of Heineken Cup experience, but Saracens might just be their toughest challenge yet.
Having settled into their new stadium at Allianz Park, the London-based club are leading the way in terms of high-profile marketing and have recently set up strong roots in Tonga in the hope of unearthing a few more Mako Vunipola-like players.
More importantly, they continue to grow on the pitch too and will be aiming to improve on last season’s losses in the semi-finals of both the Heineken Cup and Premiership. Connacht face a daunting task, so ahead of Friday night’s clash in Galway we’ve taken a look at what they should expect.
Saracens have started the season in sparkling form, winning all five of their Premiership games so far, including an impressive 22-12 victory away to Harlequins. The Londoners have also racked up three try-scoring bonus points already and the distinct impression is that McCall has recognised the need for his team to attack with greater ambition. David Strettle is top of the Premiership try-scoring charts with four, while Owen Farrell is the overall leading points scorer on 78.To watch to this video file please visit http://jrnl.ie/1121028
Last weekend was Saracen’s tightest margin of victory, 19-12 against Wasps, but they did rest a host of their key players ahead of this Heineken Cup opener. Farrell was sprung from the bench at half-time to kick three penalties and a conversion, helping his team to keep their 100% record intact.
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Farrell is the conductor of Saracens’ play, which up until this season was largely based on their forwards’ power and territorial dominance. However, with McCall encouraging his men to attack from depth and with more width, Farrell is developing a stronger passing game. Out wide, Chris Ashton is the man looking to benefit, and the notorious England winger has crossed the whitewash twice this season.
Hooker Schalk Brits is the life and soul of the club, and a superb player too. The South African shares few traits with compatriots like Bismarck du Plessis and Adriaan Strauss, but he is skillful and pacy in open play. At 33, Steve Borthwick is perhaps past his physical peak, but he remains a master of the lineout and brings leadership to a powerful forward pack.
Players to watch
Back row behemoth Billy Vunipola was one of our ’5 players to watch in this season’s Heineken Cup’, and he could be a huge thorn in Connacht’s side. Like his brother Mako, the 20-year-old excels with ball in hand and he is hard to stop when he gets up a head of steam.
Alongside Vunipola in the back row could be Will Fraser who returned from a serious shoulder injury to score against Wasps last weekend. The 23-year-old openside flanker has a huge work-rate and looks like a certain future England international.
Steve Borthwick captains the side from the second row. ©INPHO/Cathal Noonan.
Despite their new-found desire to play with more attacking ambition, Saracens will continue to be understandably reliant on an excellent set piece, particularly the lineout. Whether mauling, carrying around the fringes or competing defensively at the breakdown, Sarries are built of pure brawn.
Farrell’s incredibly accurate place-kicking can be depended on to reward the diligent work of his forward pack and Connacht will need to ensure they are especially disciplined in defence. The 22-year-old rivals Leigh Halfpenny as the best goal kicker in the world and he will be looking for chances to punish Connacht.
Brad Barritt suffered a foot injury in Saracens’ season-opening 42-20 win against London Irish and despite the fact that he has often been criticized for one-dimensional attacking play, the England centre is a magnificent defender. He is the leader of Sarries’ defence, and he is certainly a loss in that area.
As Saracens attempt to widen their attacking scope, there will be teething problems, and there may be chances for Connacht in that regard. Bath picked off an intercept try against the Londoners two weekends ago and there may be similar opportunities for Pat Lam’s men if Saracens continue with the same attacking policy.Also Read