When Stuart Lancaster takes his seat in the coaching box at St James Park in Newcastle on Saturday evening, there will be no shortage of familiar faces at both ends of the pitch.
In Lancaster’s 31-man England squad for the 2015 World Cup, eight of those will likely be lining out against his Leinster side on Saturday; Jamie George, Mako Vunipola, George Kruis, Billy Vunipola, Richard Wigglesworth, Owen Farrell, Brad Barritt and Alex Goode.
So it’s safe to say that the 49-year-old is well aware of the threats and dangers Mark McCall’s side poses.
Of course, this isn’t the first time Lancaster has coached against Saracens.
Leinster defeated Saracens 30-19 in the quarter-final of this competition last year but one expects a much closer encounter this time around against the only unbeaten side in the competition.
Saracens have swatted away all of their opponents with absolute ease en route to the final at the home of Newcastle United and Lancaster is full of respect for what they have achieved this season.
“Obviously, you’ve got to respect the quality of the performances that they’ve put in, it’s not just the results, they pretty much controlled the pool from the start,” Lancaster told the media on Monday.
“Two great wins, in the quarter-final 50 odd points and 30 odd points in the semi-final. So, yeah, we know them well, I know them well obviously, know a lot of their players.”
“We’re very respectful of what they can offer both as an attacking team but also as a defensive team as well. Their aerial threat, they’ve got world class players in a lot of the positions and are very good, strong team spirit, work-ethic for each other. Brilliantly coached by Mark McCall and his team, I know Mark well. A lot of respect for the way he’s built the club.”
In the semi-final win over Munster, Saracens put on a masterclass as to what makes them so dangerous. They kept the scoreboard ticking over in the first half in Coventry as they dominated possession and territory all the while squeezing the life out of their opponents.
It didn’t take long for the dam to burst as the pressure finally told early in the second-half.
Lancaster is well aware of this and points to their ability to apply pressure as a major threat.
“What they do is control field position and territory really well and we need to make sure we limit those opportunities to build pressure and, number two, when they’re in there, they either go for a very effective driving and power game but obviously they’ve got the likes of Owen [Farrell] and Alex Goode, in particular, who are two fantastic ballplayers who can create something out of nothing.”
In terms of analysing the opposition, Lancaster admits he will be using his own experience as England head coach in addition to their previous meeting last season in order to get an edge.
“There’s analysis of everything. My experience obviously, the experience of last year, their experiences of winning and losing finals. The year we lost in the semi-final to Clermont, Saracens went onto win it. I was looking at their side that day and if they start Vincent Koch it will be the same pack that won that final in 2017, so they’ve got huge experience in the team.
“There is so little to choose between the teams in terms of positional matchups but also the evolution and strength of all of the squads, and that’s why I think it makes for such a fascinating encounter.”
Ireland v England Repeat
There are no shortage of underlying narratives going into this final but one which will be on many people’s minds is that this is a mini repeat of Ireland v England from the Six Nations considering the large international contingents in both squads.
Johnny Sexton v Owen Farrell is one matchup that adds that extra bit of spice to an already mouth-watering battle.
“I have coached them both [Sexton and Farrell] but that is the same for Jack Conan and Billy Vunipola or Maro Itoje and James Ryan. The list goes on really. A lot is being said about the ten but we would like to think that we have a lot of people who can be ballplayers in the back line, as Saracens do.
“Just look at Alex Lozowski, Alex Goode and Brad [Barritt] can obviously play as a first receiver. So there are a lot of match-ups across the board. There’s other then; Tadhg Furlong and Mako Vunipola in the scrum, Jamie George and Sean Cronin etc…”
The two best teams in Europe will go toe-to-toe on Saturday and it’s sure to be a memorable occasion.