Just over a year ago, the Saracens left the Premiership with their tails between their legs, effectively sent off for breaking the salary cap rules.
Since then, they’ve embarked on a partial force-based reconstruction in depth, astute recruiting, and a need to prove the skeptics wrong.
Now the Saracens are back in the big game and, with the Bristol Bears as their first opponents tonight, they face a curtain raiser Goliath against Goliath.
After a season in the league which included away trips to Penzance and two-legged play-offs, the Saracens returned to the top flight with a renewed desire for money and success.
“The truth is, we haven’t played a game at this level for 12 months. Bristol is the first competitive game we have played at this level since [since 2020]“Said Mark McCall, Saracens rugby director.
“We are realistic about our current situation, but also confident. It’s a very long season, 24 games, and we are confident that we will get stronger as the season progresses.
“It is important that we do what we have done in the past and that must be very clear with the group. The band is really involved in that, about what we enjoy and what we enjoy on and off the pitch, and what we tend to find is that if we get the right stuff the rest gets by. alone. “
This time, two years ago, the Saracens were the royalty of rugby. They had completed the national and European double a few months earlier and were looking to consolidate their status as one of the greatest teams of all time.
That dream came to an abrupt end when the North London club were deemed to have cheated the salary cap for rugby players. They were docked at points before being relegated to the Championship, where they would compete in the 2020-21 campaign.
Despite a shaky start, losing to the Cornish Pirates on opening weekend, the Saracens comfortably won the league and were promoted.
With a number of star names on loan or spent long periods of international service, they have had to make do with a largely young and developing squad. This should be very useful for them for the start of the season, where Elliot Daly, Owen Farrell, Jamie George, Maro Itoje and Mako Vunipola will be unavailable following their participation in the British and Irish Lions tour of South Africa.
“There are clubs that will start without their Lions players at the start of the season, which is unusual,” said McCall.
“Some clubs are used to going without international players at different times of the season, but starting without them this season is a new challenge. So the way the teams deal with international absences, the length of the season, is going to be interesting. “
The 2021-22 Premiership campaign is different from the past few seasons. The title will be contested between 13 teams, with round passes for each team, and no relegation.
Next season, the league will expand to 14 teams again. For the Saracens, this means the reinstatement of several players – including Alex Lozowski, Ben Earls, Nick Isiekwe and Alex Goode – who left on loan last season to play top-level rugby and reduce the payroll.
“I felt like I was at home, as I knew it,” said Lozowski, who won the Challenge Cup on loan with Montpellier, owned by Mohed Altrad, last season, of his return to the Champions League. Saracens.
“Even though a few people have changed, a few players and staff, it’s the same place and the same atmosphere and it was really good to be back.”
From this season he said: “Everything is achievable. In terms of goal, in all the years that I’ve been at Sarries we’ve never sat down once at the start of the season and talked about goals or what we want to do or what we want to achieve. . It’s not really our way of doing things, even when we’ve won all these trophies.
The Saracens are known for their Wolfpack mentality, a vision of rugby between us and them, both on and off the pitch. This mindset has helped them block criticism from other clubs and fans throughout their final Premiership season and the club everyone will be desperate to beat may need to take inspiration from it this season as the fans return to the terraces.
“Sometimes you hear what’s being shouted in the stands,” Lozowski said. “If you’re on Twitter or read the newspaper, there are some things you come across and notice about what people are saying about your team, but all of our motivation comes from within and does it for each other. I wouldn’t say we do anything to prove someone wrong, it’s more just to prove to ourselves that we are right. This is where our motivation comes from.
The Saracens open the Premiership season at Bristol Bears, the firsts of last year and the losing semi-finalists. The Bears established their 27,000-seat Ashton Gate Stadium as a rugby cauldron before the pandemic, matched only by their electric style of play on the pitch.
“Friday night is going to be a good test because in addition to the Lions players who are not available, we have a number of people who will not be playing due to injury. [Duncan Taylor, Goode, Sean Maitland, Max Malins]”said McCall.
“There’s a different way of looking at it with the opportunity it gives our young players who have developed well over the past two seasons and we have enormous confidence in these young players.”
The Saracens face a Bristol side known for their attacking threat. The West Country Club seeks space anywhere on the pitch and exploits it, a tactic that their style has been admired by many.
“They are [Bristol] very ambitious and well organized. Every player on this team, from one to 15, knows exactly where they need to be within their structure, ”said Lozowski.
“Obviously, the players like [full-back and former All Black] Charles Piutau, who I played with at Wasps – he’s just a brilliant rugby player and it’s great to watch. It’s great to have him in the Premiership and I hope we can keep him quiet this weekend because he’s a phenomenal rugby player.
After serving their sentence in the championship and keeping much of their winning team, the Saracens are back with a point to prove. They might not want to shout about it, but silverware will be the goal, and this time without the asterisks.
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