We take a look at the best ever teams to have graced the sport from years gone by and today we delve into the Saracens side that dominated Europe.
While their period of sustained success is now etched in controversy following a breach of salary cap regulations – an indiscretion which has resulted in their relegation from the Premiership – it is impossible to ignore their brilliance on the field.
Quite rightly, observers are scornful over how Sarries have acted and domestically Exeter Chiefs bore the brunt of their misdemeanours, potentially missing out on three more domestic titles, but those rules and regulations do not apply to the Champions Cup.
Compared to some of the French teams they are fiscally impoverished, so there is more to their trophy-laden dominance than mere money, despite the presence of some top class foreign imports. Brendan Venter got the ball rolling, altering the culture within the club, before Mark McCall built on the South African’s revolution.
Although the big names kept appearing over the next decade or so, they tended to be home-grown as the Londoners built an outstanding academy that saw them bring through and develop some outstanding individuals, which also formed the spine of the England team.
What made them great
It was consistency and culture, as years of building and learning culminated in Saracens dominating the European game. Venter and then McCall created an environment where players wanted to be, while Sarries’ focus on age-grade rugby enabled them to develop established internationals over time.
Alex Goode was one of the early success stories and quickly became a key component of the squad, while Brad Barritt, who joined from the Durban-based Sharks at the age of 22, is another that remains to this day.
Players have rarely left the Londoners for ‘a new challenge’, such is their want to stay at a club which treats them well and helps them off the field, as well as on it. Even after the salary cap scandal, which has ultimately tarnished their reputation, the bond was strong and that is a credit to what they have built.
The style of play has developed too. They have always been pragmatic but the conservative – and rather dull – approach which was prevalent under Venter eventually gave way to an all-court game. It starts with the physicality and set-piece efficiency, but their skill sets in the loose and the players’ ability to make the right decisions has been crucial to the team’s success.
Saracens’ adaptability has served them well and helped them hold off the challenge from several outstanding sides, including Leinster and Clermont Auvergne, to become the dominant outfit in the Champions Cup over the past four seasons.
Two stalwarts have already been mentioned in Barritt and Goode but the wonderful Schalk Brits, who quite simply epitomised the Saracens culture, was also there from the start.
Since then, others have come to the fore and formed the spine of the squad, including Brits’ rival for the hooker position, Jamie George. Behind George in the second-row is Maro Itoje while brothers Billy and Mako Vunipola have also been key components of the pack.
In the backs, scrum-half Richard Wigglesworth provided control and an expert box-kicking game, which proved to be the perfect foil for world-class pivot Owen Farrell. Despite being criticised for lacking creativity earlier in his career, Farrell’s attacking ability has developed over the years, while his leadership and accuracy off the tee has been invaluable.
With those two directing operations, that has enabled their outside backs to thrive. Throughout the past four seasons, they have had a plethora of talent at various stages with Chris Ashton, Sean Maitland, Liam Williams and Duncan Taylor all showing their worth.
Saracens and Leinster have generally been the two main protagonists in Europe’s top-tier over the past few years, so their encounter in the 2019 final was significant. The Irish province had claimed the title in 2018, beating the Londoners along the way, and were once again in impressive form going into the showpiece event in Newcastle.
Sarries were a much-improved side to the one that succumbed in the 2018 quarter-final, however, and they were ultimately too good for their opponents at St James’ Park. Although Leo Cullen’s men opened up a 10-0 buffer following Tadhg Furlong’s converted try, the English outfit hit back via Sean Maitland to level matters at the interval.
Mark McCall’s charges then proceeded to control the second period and sealed an impressive victory when Billy Vunipola surged across the whitewash from close range. It completed an outstanding few years for the club as they claimed their third title in four attempts, moving them up to joint second on the all-time list.
Domestically, it all came tumbling down a few months later as their salary cap breaches were revealed, resulting in relegation and an inability to compete in the 2020/21 and 2021/22 Champions Cup competitions, but their success on the European stage between 2015 and 2019 will be memorable for the Saracens supporters.
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