Let’s be honest, it’s always a bit of a comedown going back to domestic rugby after the thrills and spills of the Six Nations – especially when we’ve had a tournament with the one just gone, stuffed full of tries, drama, and comically-late shoulder charges. Domestic rugby lacks the capacity crowds, the anthems, and the over-the-top pyrotechnics that are on constant show during Europe’s premier international tournament – or it would, if Saracens didn’t have anything to do with it.
Say what you like about Sarries, but they know how to throw a big party and get the focus back on the breeding ground of international talent – the Aviva Premiership. With that in mind, it should come as no surprise that they’ve displayed all the subtlety of Jamie Robert’s chin when arranging their “Welcome back, internationals” fixture with Harlequins, booking out Wembley Stadium, declaring they’re aiming for a world record club attendance and arranging a £1 million pound competition for the half time entertainment. Showy? Sure, even by Sarries' standards. But great for the game? Absolutely. New fans are drawn by the spectacle, and current fans are pulled back into the addictive highs and lows of the domestic game by the chance of seeing their teams perform on one of the biggest stages.
And the biggest stage, the Premiership Final, would appear to be exactly where Saracens are headed this season. Sitting comfortably in second place, they have a home semi-final all but sewn up already this season and have looked almost indestructible at times. With a ferociously physical pack, they rely on making big yards around the fringes to get sides backpeddling, before pulling the trigger out wide where now-ex-England wingers, Chris Ashton and Dave Strettle are the greediest and most lethal finishers in the league. And with Mako Vunipola and Owen Farrell returning from impressive Six Nations campaigns, the ball carrying capacity and precision out wide will only get better.
Ominous for Harlequins, you might say, as the West London outfit have had a fairly up and down season, sitting in 5th place at the moment. But if there’s one team in the league who can tear any side to shreds, it’s Quins. Despite having the likes of Mike Brown, Danny Care and Captain Chris Robshaw rested after England duty – where they were as key to their country’s game as they are to their club side’s – Conor O’Shea can still trust his side to pay the fast-paced, offloading game that can have even the most organised defence in utter chaos. That said, I am surprised that O’Shea has rested 3 of his best players for this fixture when they are 4 points behind that crucial 4th place – whilst I applaud the need to put players’ welfare first, the England regulars have actually only played in 3 of the last 5 weeks...
Regardless of the absence of certain stars from the Quins side, you can bet your bottom dollar that Wembley won’t be short of star quality on Saturday afternoon. That’s just Saracens way – glitz, glamour, and – more often than not – a win.
Saracens Team News
England pair Mako Vunipola and Owen Farrell return for Saracens as they look to set a world-record attendance for a rugby union club game. Sarries start prop Vunipola and fly-half Farrell alongside England internationals Chris Ashton on the wing and Brad Barritt at centre.
Starting Line up: Goode; Ashton, Bosch, Barritt, Strettle; Farrell, Wigglesworth; Vunipola, Brits, Johnston; Borthwick (c), Kruis; Wray, Burger, Joubert.Subs: George, Barrington, Stevens, Botha, Brown, De Kock, Hodgson, Taylor.
Mako Vunipola. Fresh off an impressive display with England in Rome, the man with the world’s longest earlobes will be a key ball carrier for the men in black (as he was in the same fixture last year), especially with the absence of his brother. So much of Sarries’ game revolves around building momentum through powerful carries close to the contact zone, and his work rate will need to be at the highest it’s been if Saracens are to benefit from his explosive work with the ball in hand. In the set-piece, too, he will be aware that he’s up against Kyle Sinckler – a highly rated but inexperienced young prop. Vunipola isn’t renowned for his scrummaging but, as an international, he must be looking to test out the young Quins man and get on top early.
Harlequins Team News
Only Joe Marler, at prop, features for Harlequins from their quartet of England Six Nations representatives. Danny Care, Mike Brown and Chris Robshaw have all been rested, however there are six changes from the Quins side that beat Worcester three weeks ago. Marler missed England's final Six Nations game against Italy to attend the birth of his child, but comes into the Quins starting XV alongside Luke Wallace, Tom Williams, Matt Hopper, Tom Casson and Nick Evans.
Starting Line up: Lindsay-Hague, Williams, Hopper, Casson, Monye; Evans, Dickson; Marler, Gray, Sinckler; Kennedy, Robson; Fa'asavalu, Wallace, Easter (c).Subs: Ward, Lambert, Doran Jones, Trayfoot, Guest, Stuart, Botica, Smith.
Nick Kennedy. Remember him? The forgotten man of English rugby, the second row had a brief stint in the international side before being cast away and then gallivanted off to France for a couple of seasons with Top 14 giants, Toulon, before returning to the motherland this season with the Londoners. He’s renowned for being a beanpole and strong lineout presence and, although any work he can do to secure Quins’ ball/disrupt Sarries’ in the set piece will be important, the physical presence he can offer will be absolutely crucial. He surprised many when Toulon beat Saracens last year, in the Heineken Cup semi final, with his physicality in defence and at the breakdown, and Quins will need more of the same if they are to deal with their opponents’ power game.
Owen Farrell v Nick Evans. Farrell was a revelation for England in the Six Nations, attacking far flatter and making better decisions on the gainline. Coupled with his already excellent kicking game, he began to look like the real deal in England colours and started to repay the faith that Stuart Lancaster has showed in him over the last 2 years. But he’s up against one of the best attacking fly-halves in the business on Saturday in Nick Evans, the man who has spearheaded one of the most attractive and penetrative attacks in the Premiership over the last few years. With both sides battling for go-forward ball in their own way – Sarries through their big ball carriers and Quins through their quick offloading game – the ability of both fly halves to pull the trigger and make the right calls at the right time will be key. Execution will be crucial to the outcome of this one.
With Conor O’Shea opting to rest three of his most important players, Sarries go from being slight favourites to overwhelming favourites. For the reasons I gave above, I’m not sure I fully understand the reasons for resting them, but what I do understand is that Robshaw gives them leadership, Care gives them tempo and Brown gives them penetration, and the players in their shirts will need to have huge games to challenge this Sarries side. Karl Dickson, in particular, needs to improve his service and decision making if he is to step in for Care adequately. Sarries, though, have so much power and finishing prowess that it’s hard to see any other result than a Saracens win at a packed out Wembley stadium. Sarries by 8.
What else is happening in the Aviva Premiership this weekend?
Worcester Warriors v London Wasps: Worcester have been putting in ‘brave’ and ‘improved’ displays of late, but they seem incapable of turning them into wins. I don’t think they’ll start tonight, either. Wasps by 3.
Sale Sharks v Northampton Saints: Salford is a difficult place to travel and the Sharks are a renewed force this season, with the top 6 firmly in sight. That said, Saints look irresistible in the league at the moment and I think they’ll take a hard-fought win. Saints by 6.
Gloucester v Newcastle Falcons: The Cherry and Whites may have had a pants season compared to expectations, but luckily for them the Falcons on their own wretched run of form. Expect the Shed to get something to cheer about on Saturday afternoon. Gloucester by 11.
London Irish v Bath: Irish have surprised many this season with their displays – particularly at home – and the pre-season relegation candidates are more than capable of giving the top sides a scare, especially on the brilliant St Paddy’s Day fixture. Unfortunately, expect Bath to be the party poopers (if anyone is still conscious to notice the results, of course) in this one. Bath by 5.
Leicester Tigers v Exeter Chiefs: Leicester have been struggling to find top gear all season but this is the time of year when they invariably find some form. They’ll need it when facing a Chiefs side on a high after winning their first major piece of silverware, but I think they’ll have enough in front of a vocal home crowd. Tigers by 9.