In Saturday’s European Champions Cup semi-final, Wasps played with reckless abandon at times and lit up the Madejski Stadium with some wonderful running rugby. However, it was Saracens’ ruthless efficiency and tactical awareness that won the game for them, not unlike the famous cup-winning Munster teams of old.
Wasps’ potency is found within their back division: the sharp delivery of Dan Robson; the electrifying dancing feet of Elliot Daly; the unparalleled pace and unbridled audacity of Christian Wade and the intelligence of the Piutau brothers and Frank Halai. If they can find an inch of space they will exploit it.
But Saracens’ watertight defence held firm for the majority of the match. In comparison to Wasps’ 75 successful tackles, Saracens made 123. It was only a moment of sheer genius at the very beginning of the match that allowed the aforementioned Robson and Wade to create a moment of majestic magic.
The ‘wolfpack’ mentality engendered by now England defence coach Paul Gustard has meant it is a virtual Everest to climb to score against Saracens, but it is their pack that should take all the plaudits from this entertaining game.
Maro Itoje, the latest darling of international rugby, is an English player that is finally deserving of all the hype. He is ubiquitous, he is smart (both street and book if Eddie Jones is reading) and he is accurate. Others have drawn parallels between him and Munster legend Paul O’Connell – with the performances he is putting in you can see why.
He is partnered by George Kruis, who complements him so well at the set-piece. Together, the pair took apart Wasps’ lineout and made it very difficult for them to build momentum. Kruis is understated, powerful but also constantly thinking about where he needs to be and why. It is a gift to be able to read the game so well, and in many respects he is similar to Donncha O’Callaghan.
At scrum time, Mako Vunipola did a number on Lorenzo Cittadini at scrum time and was a constant threat in attack, sniping around the rucks, but moreover put in a huge shift defensively. Munster saw Marcus Horan as the cornerstone of their pack and Vunipola is much the same.
His brother, Billy, was once again used as the bludgeon to counter the rapier of Wasps. The energy and numbers he sapped away from his opponents was mercilessly exploited by the rest of his side. At the heart of Munster’s greatest sides was commanding back row players like Denis Leamy.
And then the half-back pairing. Wigglesworth and Farrell. Stringer and O’Gara. They’re not the first names you’d see on any fans’ World XV, but they are proficient machines at what they do. Saracens and Munster both needed accurate service and control through flexible game management. If something is not working then pin the opposition back down in their own half. We saw it time and time again from O’Gara and it’s an area Farrell equals with aplomb.
Brad Barritt and Lifeimi Mafi are different types of players, but both never take a step back in defence. Barritt in particular is the lynchpin of the Saracens’ defence and constantly puts his body on the line for a cause that means everything to him. He is the epitome of the spirit and determination of the side and the embodiment of Saracens’ mindset.
Both Mafi and Barritt are complemented by superb running threats in the form of Rua Tipoki and the persistently improving Duncan Taylor. Both he and Barritt are not flashy but if they see something is on then they take full advantage – not Ferraris but fully-serviced BMWs.
Chris Ashton and Doug Howlett are quick, elusive and take every opportunity that passes their way. Goode and Hurley are rocks at the back and Dowling and Wyles are understated but metronomic in attack and defence.
Like Munster, Saracens have been a threat in European rugby for a number of years now, but have always faltered before the finish line. However, Munster managed to take it further and lifted the cup on two separate occasions.
Saracens must now believe that this is their year when they finally join rugby’s European elite. If they do, it will be down to a combination of brains and brawn, not bark and bluster.
Paul Wassell, Pundit Arena
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