Aviva Premiership Preview: Saracens

Director of Rugby/ Head Coach: Mark McCall

Captain: Brad Barritt

Stadium: Allianz Park (Capacity: 10,000)

Last Season: Champions

Prediction: Champions

Saracens had a hugely successful season last time out completing a European-Premiership double.

The London based club are awash with international talent with seven of the squad picked to tour with England in June to Australia. Alex Goode, Owen Farrell, Billy Vunipola, George Kruis, Maro Itoje, Jamie George and Mako Vunipola all playing a part in the tour.

FARRELL

Farrell kicking a goal as Saracens defeat Zebre. 

Saracens solid defensive style due to the ‘wolfpack’ instilled by former defence coach Paul Gustard and the the ability of Owen Farrell to manage the game makes them the most well drilled side in the Premiership.

Patterned play and effective breakdown work sets them apart from their rivals. Their ability to carry round the corner and explode past the defender in the ruck allows them to use phase play as an attacking weapon.

THREE TO WATCH

Owen Farrell

Position: Fly-Half/Centre  Nationality: English  Age: 24  Height: 1.88m  Weight: 96kg

The England fly-half is the key to Saracens attacking play, his goal kicking and game management allow Saracens to continue playing in the right areas of the field so he can kick the points.

His defensive game is the best of any Premiership fly-half and his attacking game has come on leaps and bounds over the past season. He now has this style of playing whats in front of him which has given Saracens an extra gear.

He’ll be on the Lions tour come June.

Maro Itoje

Position: Lock/Flanker  Nationality: English  Age: 21  Height: 1.95m  Weight: 116kg

The Saracens lock had an outstanding year winning every game he started for both Saracens and England. He became an international superstar, people in Australia will know the name now.

ITOJE

Maro Itoje with the European Champions Cup.

The 21 year old was an outstanding presence to have in the dressing room, almost a lucky charm. The power and pace he possesses is extraordinary but the lock just wants to keep improving and continue to grow as a rugby player.

Billy Vunipola

Position; Number Eight  Nationality: English  Age: 23  Height: 1.88m  Weight: 126kg

The number eight was undoubtedly England’s player of the season form which was equally impressive for his club.

His ball carrying and size make him a really dangerous player to have attacking the fringes and the way he works with a back row is really important to Saracens breakdown work, the addition of Schalk Burger will further improve this dynamic.

TRANSFERS

IN (6)

Schalk Burger (Western Stormers, SAF)

Mark Flanagan (Bedford Blues, ENG)

Vincent Koch (Western Stormers, SAF)

Alex Lozowski (Wasps, ENG)

Sean Maitland (London Irish, ENG)

Savenaca Rawaca (Fiji Sevens, INT)

OUT (10)

Biyi Alo (Worcester Warriors, ENG)

Jacques Burger (Retired, RET)

Catalin Fercu (Timisora Saracens, ROM)

Rhys Gill (Cardiff Blues, WAL)

Charlie Hodgson (Retired, RET)

Kieran Longbottom (Sale Sharks, ENG)

Aaron Morris (Harlequins, ENG)

Thretton Palamo (Bristol Rugby, ENG)

Dave Porecki (London Irish, ENG)

Ben Ransom (London Irish, ENG)

The capture of Burger is a hugely impressive signing and he will add to Saracens already impressive back row resources. Maitland adds some pace out wide and Koch will provide depth in the front row.

BURGER.jpg

New signing, Schalk Burger.

Hodgson and Burger have been great servants to the club and leave with heavy hearts. Gill will be missed for his scrum work and Biyi Alo is an exciting prospect.

My Saracens 23

15 Alex Goode 14 Chris Ashton 13 Duncan Taylor 12 Brad Barritt (Captain) 11 Chris Wyles 10 Owen Farrell 9 Richard Wigglesworth

1 Mako Vunipola 2 Schalk Brits 3 Petrus Du Plessis 4 Maro Itoje 5 George Kruis 6 Jackson Wray 7 Schalk Burger 8 Billy Vunipola

16 Jamie George 17 Vincent Koch 18 Billy Walker 19 Alistair Hargreaves 20 Will Fraser 21 Ben Spencer 22 Alex Lozowski 23 Sean Maitland

Saracens are clearly the side to beat this season.

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Problem Solved?

Over the past few years, England has struggled to put together a midfield trio that can play against the best in the world.

Now though England have an embarrassment of riches at fly-half and centre. When you have a squad that at fly-half is so good you can afford to leave out Danny Cipriani that is practically the definition of strength in depth.

Even without Manu Tuilagi the centres in the squad are a highly entertaining and talented set of players. All the centres also will be around come the 2019 World Cup that is of course bar injury or ban.

After the first test though a clear partnership has emerged at fly-half and inside centre between George Ford and Owen Farrell.

fordy

George Ford changed the game in the first test.

Both fly-halves by trade, Ford started on the bench in Brisbane but after 29 minutes the 23 year old entered the fray due to a tactical decision by Eddie Jones. It changed the game.

Burrell was not quite up to speed with the defensive system, Farrell’s move to 12 sured this up and Ford at 10 propelled England’s attacking game to a new level, as he set up two tries. Farrell also kicked well only missing one attempt at goal.

England look set to start with the same combination come the second test which kicks off on Saturday in Melbourne and could secure England a first ever series victory in Australia.

Jonathan Joseph seems assured to hold on to the 13 jersey for the foreseeable future even with the form Elliot Daly has been in for Wasps. With international rugby at the moment there is very little room to experiment with new combinations which means Daly may not get a chance unless Joseph suffers an injury.

George Ford’s outstanding passing game and vision in attack added to Farrell’s metronomic goal kicking and superb game management allows England to create space for the real speedsters out wide.

Anthony Watson and Marland Yarde are super quick and given space they are among the most dangerous finishers in the northern hemisphere and both have an extraordinary international strike rate.

faz

Farrell has finished at 12 for every game under Eddie Jones.

Farrell and Ford are both still young as well at 24 and 23 respectively. They look like the long term solution to the midfield problem that has blighted England for years. A combination that can secure a series victory in Melbourne.

Expected England XV: 15 Mike Brown 14 Anthony Watson 13 Jonathan Joseph 12 Owen Farrell 11 Marland Yarde 10 George Ford 9 Ben Youngs

1 Mako Vunipola 2 Dylan Hartley (Captain) 3 Dan Cole 4 Maoro Itoje 5 George Kruis 6 Chris Robshaw 7 James Haskell 8 Billy Vunipola

One-Nil

Scorecard

Australia 28

Tries: Hooper (2), Folau, Kudridrani

Cons: Foley

Pens: Foley (2)

England 39

Tries: Nowell, Yarde, Joseph

Cons: Farrell (3)

Pens: Farrell (6)

England’s 39-28 victory over Australia is a huge step towards success in 2019 with their first win down under with Eddie Jones at the helm.

Firstly, James Haskell, doubted by many including myself has grown into one of the leaders since Eddie Jones took charge. Haskell was a target along with back row partner Robshaw following the World Cup.

Today the Wasps captain was immense in defence one hit he made on David Pocock was huge and a number of other crucial hits were made over the eighty minutes. Haskell also won a number of turnovers against Australia, the fact that Australia toor practically the same team apart only eight months ago is hard to believe after today.

The difference Eddie Jones has made to the team is immeasurable. He has changed what was a hugely underachieving back row into one of the best units in the world. Hartley has become a totem of self-control, Watson has evolved into one of the most dangerous finishers in world rugby, Vunipola is the best eight north of the equator and the second row pairing of Itoje and Kruis is unstoppable.

hask

James Haskell has been outstanding since Eddie Jones took over.

Today England opted to start with the power pairing of Owen Farrell and Luther Burrell, the fact Jones was not afraid to make the change early in the game the confidence he had to bring on Ford made the game.

Most coaches would not have had the courage to take Burrell off during the first half, the centre came off though and England bloomed. The playmaking skill of Ford and Farrell opened Australia up. Ford himself setting up two tries, one with a floated pass to Yarde and the subtle chip through for Nowell.

The Grand Slam winning combination has now beaten Australia in Brisbane, England’s highest ever total in Australia. The demons of the Tour from Hell look to have been put to bed now. The Suncorp Stadium has been conquered.

Farrell was outstanding off the tee only missing one kick, his passing game was beautiful it flowed allowing England to unleash the dangerous wide backs of Watson and Yarde. His defensive game was greatly utilised when Ford entered the fray, it allowed Farrell to step up and stop Kerevi and Kuridrani terrorising England.

fordy.jpg

Despite not starting Ford played a large part of the first test.

Another selection that is hugely controversial was that of Marland Yarde on the wing rather than Exeter’s Jack Nowell. Yarde though was excellent today his raw pace gave him a try and couple of important half breaks. His performance has surely won him a place in the team despite Nowell’s outstanding finish for England’s third try.

The series is not over and the second test will be a monumental battle as with the third, Australia will not just lie down. England though look to be improving at a rate of knots, the series is well and truly underway.

My England 23 for the second test:

1 Mako Vunipola 2 Dylan Hartley (Captain) 3 Dan Cole 4 Maro Itoje 5 George Kruis 6 Chris Robshaw 7 James Haskell 8 Billy Vunipola

9 Ben Youngs 10 George Ford 11 Marland Yarde 12 Owen Farrell 13 Jonathan Joseph 14 Anthony Watson 15 Mike Brown

16 Jamie George 17 Matt Mullan 18 Paul Hill 19 Joe Launchbury 20 Courtney Lawes 21 Danny Care 22 Luther Burrell 23 Jack Nowell

The Big Debate: George Ford versus Owen Farrell

England have won the Six Nations for the first time since 2011, a feat former head coach Stuart Lancaster never achieved. England are 80 minutes away from their first Grand Slam in an astonishing 13 years.

England-win-grand-slam-007

The class of 2003.

For years the biggest problem for England coaches has been who to pick in the midfield, that problem is still there today but not due to the lack of international quality players but more and overwhelming number of players fighting for the 10,12 and 13 jerseys.

All of them seem to be under the age of 26 as well with Henry Slade, Elliot Daly, Owen Farrell, George Ford, Kyle Eastmond, Manu Tuilagi, Jonathan Joseph, Sam Hill and Ollie Devoto all competing for just 3 places in a starting line-up add in a couple of older players such as Danny Cipriani and Luther Burrell, then the youngsters coming through such as Johnny Williams and Joe Marchant and you have a plethora of options.

It really is a headache, but a nice one to have for Eddie Jones and his esteemed team of coaches.

Fly-half, a pivotal role to any team, especially at the high level of test rugby, so far George Ford has been Jones’ fly-half and his main competitor for the shirt Owen Farrell has been shifted to 12 for the previous four games.

both.jpg

George Ford and Owen Farrell.

Both have had fairly quiet campaigns going about their business relatively well without much fuss, that is of course apart from last week, where this partnership seemed to click into place.

Ford and Farrell in tandem which we saw glimpses of against Italy and Ireland blossomed into life against Wales. Ford looked confident behind his giant pack with the Saracens playmaker outside him.

The return however of Tuilagi and the form of Daly and Slade could threaten to upset this glorious partnership in the England midfield if not now then certainly when England travel to Australia in June.

There are already calls from some quarters to oust Ford for Tuilagi next week, but how can that be the case after what can only be described as a strong performance from the Bath out half.

He made two line breaks, made a try saving tackle on George North, kicked well out of hand and took the ball to the line therefore capitalising on Wales’ blitz defence. He looked like an international fly-half for the first time since last season.

ford

George Ford scoring a try in last year’s championship.

Ford was immense his only mistake coming when Dan Biggar who is in blisteringly good form himself charged down a poor kick from Ford.

The attacking mastermind surely has given Eddie Jones a thought of how to deal with this situation he finds himself with Ford pitted against Farrell.

Owen Farrell did kick well against Wales and his defence was as usual solid. Farrell is different to Ford, he doesn’t offer the attacking flair that Ford does which frankly is nigh on impossible to teach. The same way Ford doesn’t offer unflappable goal kicking or big hits.

Farrell was by no means perfect on Saturday his lack of vision resulted in a wasted try opportunity which would have put England out of reach heading into the final quarter.

faz

Farrell in action for England.

Neither deserve to be dropped, both have performed incredibly well, but Jones has to ask himself if one is to be dropped, flair or pragmatism, attacking or defence, Ford or Farrell?

England Out But Hope On Show

England had a tough World Cup campaign and it finished with flattery against Uruguay as a stale performance saw England win 60-3, a flattering scoreline for the host nation.

Jack Nowell crosses the line for one of England's 10 tries.

Jack Nowell crosses the line for one of England’s 10 tries.

The performance though did have some pleasing elements, for one the performance of Exeter’s playmaker Henry Slade who has been unbelievable for his club and it is a mystery as to how he has been overlooked until England’s final ‘dead rubber’ as it were. Slade’s passing and running game was quite something to behold and outside Ford who finally got his chance once again was good with the ball in hand if he did falter off the tee.

Henry Slade scores for Exeter against Harlequins.

Henry Slade scores for Exeter against Harlequins.

Farrell kicked well as he always does, a masterful display of kicking. Joseph’s introduction saw England change, the midfield now looked sharper and an unbelievable piece of inspiration from the Bath centre set up Watson’s 2nd try against the minnows. Joseph’s pace and feet make him a real threat and it is a shame we did not get to see more of his dazzling skill in this World Cup.

Another player who looked good was the Saracens fullback, Alex Goode, he has had no chances in this World Cup despite a stellar season for the Premiership champions. He added a playmaking option to the midfield already laden with Ford, Farrell and Slade.

England showed some sort of attacking intent and hunger which had not been seen against Wales or Australia. Some flair, bravery and guile, a hunger to win and win well. They looked in control with flowing passing, good running lines and a couple of wonderful tries.

The performance had it been against any of the other top teams in the world would have been a horror show but the glimpses we saw of Ford and Slade combining along with the magic from Watson, Joseph and Nowell may well have been the dawn of a new English backline.

Anthony Watson in action for Bath.

Anthony Watson in action for Bath.

Forget the power based game, England need a team that can attack, so Manu Tuilagi and Luther Burrell are good players. But what would you rather England produced a crash up the middle or scything breaks round the outside? I know what I would rather watch, I may be slightly biased but after witnessing some amazing backs interplay last night I think it’s clear which way England must go following this World Cup’s conclusion and the likely resignation of Lancaster.

The forwards need a complete reshuffle and need a nasty streak, something that other teams fear, they need to emulate the fear factor Johnson, Dallaglio, Vickery and Back provided in 2003. England have some of those figures ready to step into the breach.

They need their scavenger, the Toulon exile Armitage, they need to find a way of bringing him into the squad without seeing an exodus from the Premiership. Burgess is a back row and he can be played there England need to address that as well. The back row has been a real point of weakness for the last 4 years.

The coaches all need to go, Lancaster has failed, Rowntree’s scrum has been bullied by Australia, Wales and France, Farrell has been involved in refereeing disputes and there is the obvious nepotism claim (which has been heard loud due to rumours of Ford, Slade and Goode running rings round Barritt and Burgess) and Catt’s bust up with Cipriani leaves him out of the set up.

Rob Andrew and Ian Ritchie also have to call time on their stays at Twickenham, they have to leave and England have to bring in Sir Clive Woodward as a Director of Rugby, he is the only man for the job a sentiment echoed by Dallaglio. England have deep rooted problems that must be sorted out there is a long list of people to shoulder some of the blame but last night we saw a glimpse of a brighter future.

My 33 Man Squad for Six Nations

Props Dan Cole (Leicester), Alex Corbisiero (Northampton), Kyle Sinckler (Harlequins), Mako Vunipola (Saracens), David Wilson (Bath)

Hookers Ross Batty (Bath), Jamie George (Saracens), Dylan Hartley (Captain, Northampton)

Second Rows Dave Attwood (Bath), Joe Launchbury (Wasps), Courtney Lawes (Northampton), Geoff Parling (Exeter)

Flankers Steffon Armitage (Toulon), Dave Ewers (Exeter), Will Fraser, Maro Itoje (both Saracens)

Number Eights Nathan Hughes (Wasps), Ben Morgan (Gloucester)

Scrum-Halves Danny Care (Harlequins), Joe Simpson (Wasps)

Fly-Halves Danny Cipriani (Sale), Owen Farrell (Saracens), George Ford (Bath)

Centres Kyle Eastmond, Jonathan Joseph (both Bath), Henry Slade (Exeter), Manu Tuilagi (Leicester)

Wings Matt Banahan (Bath), Jonny May (Gloucester), Christian Wade (Wasps), Anthony Watson (Bath)

Fullbacks Mike Brown (Harlequins), Alex Goode (Saracens)

That brings both a balance and some excitement along with some nasty forwards, this is of course if form is the same as last season only time will tell.