Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 25 December 2014

Saracens face Ulster Rugby full of confidence

Saracens come to Belfast on the crest of a winning wave – top of the Aviva Premiership by a seven-point margin and already guaranteed a place in the play-offs.

They are the Premiership's most prolific try-scorers, with 53 in 18 matches to their credit, which is one more than second-placed Northampton Saints. That said, they have conceded five more than their Franklin's Gardens rivals – 27 compared to 22.

Their scoring habit continued in the Heineken Cup, too, with Saracens the top points scorers in the pool stage of this season's tournament having rattled up 217 in their six games.

To date in 2014, they have played 12 competitive matches, winning nine. Since the start of February their Premiership record is played six, won five, the one blemish being a 22-13 home defeat by London Irish on February 8.

BACKS

No shortage of familiar names in this division and no lack of back-up, either.

It's a formidable array of talent, with irrefutable evidence of their potency in attack. With an average of 9.8 per game, they boast the most clean breaks of all the sides in this season's Heineken Cup.

In England wings – albeit currently out of favour – Chris Ashton and David Strettle, they have a pair of finishers who between them have scored 11 tries to date in this season's Heineken Cup.

Ashton, with seven – to say nothing of assists in the creation of tries for others on three occasions – is the 2014 tournament's top finisher. Strettle has four, as has American Chris Wyles

While Ashton and Strettle are out favour with England coach Stuart Lancaster, full-back Alex Goode, powerful centre Brad Barritt and of course Owen Farrell, most certainly are not.

And in Duncan Taylor – two tries thus far – they have a dangerous Scottish midfielder in the midst of this English enclave. Add Charlie Hodgson, Richard Wigglesworth/Neil de Kock and Marcelo Bosch to the mix and you have real fire-power.

FORWARDS

As with the backs you're looking at serious quality, for even if injured No 8 Billy Vunipola (ankle) fails to make it, there is sufficient class in the Saracens pack to pose problems for any side.

They have an awesome line-out, described by Ulster skipper Johann Muller as being "the best in Europe and probably the world."

Captain Steve Borthwick, George Kruis, Ernst Joubert and Billy Vunipola are their principle targets, with the accuracy of the throwing from Schalk Brits/Jamie George seldom awry.

With the line-out being such a reliable source of possession, quite naturally they maul off it regularly and successfully.

Their scrum is another powerful weapon, while the ball-carrying of Brits and the relentless tackling of Kelly Brown, who completed the most pool stage tackles (56), missing none.

Borthwick and Billy Vunipola make this a magnificent pack in terms of creativity and destruction.

As off-loaders, too, Billy Vunipola, Brits and Joubert all have highly impressive figures alongside their names.

Excellent set-pieces, then, and no less powerful at the breakdown or going forward with ball in hand.

KICKER

Make that kickers, plural, for in Owen Farrell and Charlie Hodgson they are spoiled for choice. But so too are Ulster, with Paddy Jackson and Ruan Pienaar right up there.

Farrell (right) has 51 points thus far – four short of Jackson and three shy of Pienaar's tally – while Hodgson is some distance off on 21.

Either way, if Ulster are silly enough to concede penalties in their own half, one or other of this pair will punish them. Put it this way – any re-run of last weekend's penalty count against Cardiff Blues will be fatal.

CAPTAIN

Steve Borthwick is another of the Saracens who does not figure in England's plans these days. His country's one-time captain, his most recent cap was in March 2010.

But although England appear not to value him, Saracens do. That's hardly surprising; he is an outstanding on-the-field leader and thinker, organising his side in the midst of the battle.

He leads by example, not least by virtue of his work in the line-out and his exceptional tackle-counts.

COACH

Earlier this week Mark McCall spoke in terms of teams earning their spurs in the Heineken Cup by dint of consistently high-level performances and their ability to win matches year upon year, thereby qualifying for the knock-out stages.

Since joining Saracens as first team coach at the start of 2009/10 and then becoming Director of Rugby in the wake of Brendan Venter's departure in January 2011, the Ulster exile has masterminded Saracens' emergence as a force in the Aviva Premiership and, increasingly, the Heineken Cup as well. A contract extension tying him to Saracens until 2017 underlines the esteem in which he is held at Allianz Park.

VERDICT

Previously wholly dependent on tight organisation and being physically abrasive, more recently they have added style and flair to the mix, witness their try-scoring figures. If they are allowed to play on their terms, they will not be stopped. It's a case of match their physicality at the outset or perish for not having done so.

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