De Kock: Duo will be sorely missed
Saracens will be hard pressed to replace pivotal characters Steve Borthwick and Matt Stevens for next season, admits scrum-half Neil de Kock.
Captain Borthwick will retire in the summer, after 16 seasons In the Aviva Premiership, while prop Stevens will join Natal Sharks in the Super 15.
Half-back De Kock admitted Saracens are a poorer side every time 34-year-old skipper Borthwick is missing, something the grizzly lock hates to hear.
And the South African playmaker hailed 31-year-old England and Lions front-rower Stevens for shrugging off a two-year drugs ban to return to the pinnacle of the sport.
Saracens host Exeter Chiefs at Allianz Park on Sunday, aiming to continue their resurgence after a surprise defeat to London Irish two weeks ago.
De Kock said that 22-13 home loss must now shock Mark McCall's side into a powerful run towards the business - and silverware - end of the season.
"There are just not enough good things I can say about Steve, but I've always said this to him and he doesn't like it when I do, but we're a better team with him in it than without him," De Kock told Press Association Sport.
"In terms of his work ethic and his standard of play, he drives standards himself, and he's one particular guy that doesn't want to let the team down.
"The level he maintains over the period of the season, over 14 seasons he's played has just been incredible.
"And for every young rugby player, looking for role models, there's no better guy than Steve.
"He's got a dogged determination, he hates losing and he's a great leader.
"He's going to be very sorely missed.
"Is he going to be replaceable, he's a unique guy in the way he captains and the way he plays, so someone will have to fill that void but I don't see another Steve Borthwick filling that void.
"In saying that, he'll be the first guy to say he's still got nearly four months left of the season, so he's not exactly saying goodbye yet.
"Hopefully we can send him off on a high."
Stevens was banned for two years in 2009 after testing positive for cocaine, a punishment that spelled the end of his seven-year career at Bath.
The South African-born front-rower hit back to top-level rugby with Saracens after serving his suspension though, even forcing his way onto last summer's British and Irish Lions tour to Australia.
Experienced half-back De Kock said that turnaround underlines a resolve that helps make Stevens such a popular figure at Saracens.
Calling on Saracens to push for trophies this term, De Kock admitted no one at Allianz Park has forgotten reaching both Premiership and Heineken Cup semi-finals last term only to end the campaign empty-handed.
"Matt's brought an incredible amount of experience to our team over the last few seasons," said De Kock.
"Coming back from his two-year lay-off, to come back and get into a Lions squad, that just typifies what kind of character he is and what calibre of payer he is too.
"He drives standards, he's got a different challenge now going to Super Rugby, but he'll be sorely missed at Saracens.
"We've all made mistakes, and he was determined that he could get back into the necessary shape.
"Over the years he kept himself fit with other sports and other things, and he came back and had this desire to get back into the top level of rugby.
"Within 18 months he was right back up there, and that must have been incredibly tough.
"He just drives that determination, and it rubs off; he's a great motivator and a great man to have in your squad.
"We all remember last season pushing so far but coming away with nothing, so that drives us on, but also we would love to send these guys off in style too."
Lock Ed Slater will captain Leicester Tigers for the first time in Sunday's lunchtime clash at London Irish.
Christian Day and Kahn Fotuali'i return for Northampton's trip to Newcastle, with England Under-20s centre Tom Stephenson once again partnering George Pisi in midfield.
Fit-again Ben Foden takes a seat on the bench and could make his first appearance since November after knee trouble.