Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 2 September 2014

Time for Saracens to send out a big statement

Saracens coach Mark McCall has warned his players to be ready for a tense atmosphere at Ravenhill
Saracens coach Mark McCall has warned his players to be ready for a tense atmosphere at Ravenhill

They won't be getting quite the same treatment when arriving here as they managed in New York last week when the squad's three-day bonding session began with the NYPD fast-tracking them through customs and then granting them an escort, as three giant Hummers whisked the players away from JFK airport.

Nice, and this special attention was merely payback for donating signed shirts to the Big Apple's cops over a year ago, yes some in the NYPD apparently like the game. That was all diverting, but this weekend the signed shirts are unlikely to be doing the rounds as Saracens get down to their sizeable assignment of work at the now fully upgraded Ravenhill.

The significance of their task has tended to be lost amidst the hype. It's not just about Mark McCall getting the better of his former employers and storming fortress Ravenhill to sate whatever personal feelings he may retain for his less than happy departure.

Nor indeed, is it simply a case of the current Premiership leaders doing the double over Ulster as they seek to progress to the semi-finals of the Heineken Cup for a second consecutive year.

Tonight is about the Allianz Park club making a statement in the competition and showing that they are serious players who can make it all the way to their first European final.

Win at Ravenhill and they are at Twickenham for a semi-final with either Clermont or Leicester. They can also start to believe that they can go one better than last year when eventual winners Toulon turned them over at, well, Twickenham as it happened.

Setting the pace in the Premiership – they are currently seven points ahead of Northampton Saints – just isn't quite good enough for Saracens' ambitions. They need to be able to turn up at bearpits such as Ravenhill and come away with what they need in the white heat of European competition.

As McCall dropped into conversation during the week, now has to be the time for Saracens to take things to the next level.

Up to tonight, they have only lost four games all season in both Europe – where, interestingly, Toulouse beat them home and away in the pool stages – and their domestic league.

But for all the rhetoric, there is no avoiding the fact that coming to Ravenhill is something of a concern. It's not so much that they don't know what's likely to greet them on and off the pitch, but rather that they haven't exactly always flourished when the nitty-gritty of knockout rugby comes around.

The fact that 75 per cent of Heineken Cup quarter-finals are won by the home side hasn't' been lost on them either as they face into this challenge, but they have made a strong argument that their togetherness will help see them through, a unity that was worked on during their recent visit to the Big Apple.

Psychologically they crucially have Billy Vunipola back – at blindside flanker – and though his ankle injury has sidelined him since England's game with Ireland in the Six Nations, he is still a vital cog in McCall's attacking strategy regardless of match fitness.

And the need to put dominance and structure into the game will also be enhanced by their powerful front five with Mako Vunipola, Schalk Brits and James Johnston making up a mighty front row backed up by hugely experienced skipper Steve Borthwick (pictured) and Mouritz Botha.

Get the edge in the collisions – meat and drink for centres Duncan Taylor and Brad Barritt – and providing a platform for a certain Owen Farrell will be central despite the threats out wide of Chris Ashton and David Strettle.

It's time for Sarries to stand up.

They certainly won't be lacking in the belief that this job can be done.

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