Three areas Saracens struggle with as the end of an era approaches

Owen Farrell’s form has been mixed and he looks like he would benefit from a change of scenery and a new challenge – ROMAIN PERROCHEAU/AFP via Getty Images

Even the many who resent the Saracens and will surrender to some schadenfreude Right now, never in your wildest dreams would you imagine them scoring 50 points. Dogged resilience has been a pillar of the club’s success for more than a decade. Defeats like the one suffered by the Saracens in Bordeaux, at the hands of Matthieu Jalibert and his friends, have been very rare.

Sunday afternoon’s 55-15 defeat was a record low that has also marked a decisive fortnight for Mark McCall and his team. To continue the trophy hunt, the rot must be stopped immediately.

We can talk about regression to the mean and add a degree of context to the Saracen crisis. Five of their seven Premiership and Champions Cup defeats have come at Sandy Park, Loftus Versveld, AJ Bell Stadium, Welford Road and now Stade Chaban-Dalmas. Winning in any of those places would have been impressive. However, they also seem to be caught in a multifaceted spiral.

The Owen Farrell situation and the end of an era

The World Cup crossover, as well as any hangover, was always going to be difficult for Saracens given their need to juggle resources after contributing 13 internationals from five different nations to the tournament. A 65-10 defeat to Exeter Chiefs on the opening day of this Premiership campaign reinforced that.

Subsequent distractions regarding his skipper, first when Owen Farrell announced his break in England and then when news broke of a possible move to Racing 92, have exacerbated matters. They have also reinforced how Saracens face a major transition period, something McCall admitted before their 19-10 defeat to Leicester Tigers.

As well as Farrell, two more stalwarts, Mako and Billy Vunipola, are likely to leave the club this summer. A good contingent of first team players will also leave. In the past, Saracens have handled the inevitable turnover well, maintaining momentum despite parting ways with club legends such as Brad Barritt and Richard Wigglesworth. Still, this round of back-and-forth will be a challenge.

Mako and Billy VunipolaMako and Billy Vunipola

Mako and Billy Vunipola’s trophy-laden seasons at Saracens are coming to an end – David Rogers/Getty Images

To begin with, it would require an extraordinary ability to concentrate so that the players were not affected. Before the weekend, Farrell’s form had been mixed. Against the Tigers in the East Midlands, for example, he dropped an interception that was a gift to Dan Kelly, but he also led a skilful attack, both with first-phase attacks and clever kick passes. Sunday was more difficult.

Farrell threw two errant passes early on (one bounced off Maro Itoje’s head) before kicking all out. He was walked back 10 meters to question referee Chris Busby and later, in a tense second half, his loaded chip sparked an eighth Bordeaux try through Pablo Uberti.

At 32 years old, Farrell still has a lot to offer and will surely feel refreshed with a change of environment. He was in charge during last season’s Premiership final and for most of the World Cup semi-final against South Africa. However, it is understandable that his mind currently seems to be confused. And, because of his influence, that is harming the Saracens.

Saracens without Farrell, Mako and Billy would be a very different place requiring other leaders to assert themselves and a new fly-half to be recruited. That said, with Ben Earl among those re-signed and Phil Brantingham and Rhys Carré believed to be coming in, they will have plenty of quality for the new era. Navigating an awkward interim period, after other clubs such as Bath, Northampton Saints and Exeter have so obviously established themselves, will not be easy. Bath and Northampton have already won in north London this season.

Concentrated list of victims

Injuries to key players are difficult enough to deal with and Saracens have felt noticeably less secure without Tom Willis and Alex Lozowski. Even in a short period since his arrival in August, the former had come close to securing a place in a strong frontline defensive line. Willis will return from knee surgery in March. Lozowski, a tough, athletic midfielder, faces a longer layoff due to a torn ACL. Callum Hunter-Hill, who has become a mobile and imposing figure, is another primed to be fit after the Six Nations.

Tom WillisTom Willis

Tom Willis, left, should return from injury in March – Steve Bardens/The RFU Collection via Getty Images

By then, Saracens could face an uphill battle to reach the national play-offs. Arguably more damaging has been the concentration of injuries in the front row. At loose forward, Eroni Mawi, Ralph Adams-Hale and Tom West have faced time-outs, with Mako Vunipola also currently suspended. Kapeli Pifeleti and Tom Woolstencroft have failed to offer backup as a hooker. On the tighthead side, Marco Riccioni and Ollie Hoskins, the latter brought in as injury cover for Alec Clarey, have been unavailable. Saracens, who could previously rely on the scrum to relieve pressure, have been under pressure.

Penalties and bleeding scrum attempts

When teams play well, the different facets of their game appear in sync. Saracens appear out of touch, their chain of performance broken more often than not by a constant stream of scrum penalties (the most decisive at Sale and Leicester) and a porous defence. Curiously, they looked as tough as ever at Twickenham Stoop on November 18 as Harlequins were sent off 38-10. However, even in subsequent bonus point home wins over Bristol Bears and Connacht, Saracens managed a combined total of 67 points; a sure sign that their attack has had to cover up other deficiencies. This is difficult to remedy during a marathon block of games.

In Bordeaux, Saracens conceded three quick tries and found themselves trailing 19-3 before the end of the first quarter. After missing the chance to pull a try back on the stroke of half-time, when Logovi’i Mulipola was stopped on the verge of a miss by the magnificent Yoram Moefana, they needed to open up and go further to chase a free-running return. That only caused more problems, because Bordeaux are the kings of the counterattack and revel in transition opportunities. Official statistics indicate that Saracens completed 64 tackles and missed 33; a frightening proportion. Romain Buros and Louis Bielle-Biarrey were the main tormentors, beating 13 defenders between them. Damian Penaud accumulated a whopping 142 meters with ball in hand. Bordeaux’s combination of speed and muscle, coordinated by a dancing Jalibert, was overwhelming.

Nick Tompkins tackles Pete SamuNick Tompkins tackles Pete Samu

Saracens made 66 tackles but, surprisingly and debilitatingly, missed 33 – ROMAIN PERROCHEAU/AFP via Getty Images

Saracens cannot simply limp into the Six Nations break. They have a week to regroup and launch some counterpunches of their own. Beat Lyon comfortably and you will keep alive the dream of a home Champions Cup final at Tottenham, which would represent a fitting last dance for those who leave. On January 27, Exeter will visit StoneX Stadium. Rob Baxter’s men will relish the opportunity to add to Saracens’ pain.

Sixth in the Premiership standings, their title defense is faltering. They have already overcome difficult moments in the past and have continued to win titles. Doing it this time would be a huge accomplishment for McCall.

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