Friday 17 September 2021 11:00 am

Back in black: Saracens ready to resume fight for Premiership supremacy

Little more than a year ago Saracens left the Premiership with their tails between their legs, effectively kicked out for breaching salary cap rules.

Since then they have undertaken a partial rebuild based on strength in depth, shrewd recruitment and a need to prove the doubters wrong.

Now Saracens are back in the big time and, with Bristol Bears their first opponents tonight, they face a Goliath versus Goliath curtain raiser.

After a season in the Championship that featured away trips to Penzance and two legged play-offs, Saracens have returned to the top flight with a renewed desire for silverware and success.

“The truth is we haven’t played a game at this level for 12 months. Bristol is the first competitive game we’ve played at this level for [since 2020],” said Mark McCall, Saracens’ director of rugby.

“We’re realistic about where we are at but also confident. This is a very long season, 24 matches, and we’re confident that we will get stronger the longer the season goes on.

“It’s important that we do what we’ve done in the past and that’s to be really clear with the group. The group is really involved in this, on what we prize and what we value on and off the field, and what we tend to find is that if we get those things right the rest takes care of itself.”

This time two years ago, Saracens were rugby royalty. They had completed the domestic and European double months earlier and were looking to cement their status as one of the all-time great club sides. 

That dream came to an abrupt end when the north London club were deemed to have cheated rugby’s player salary cap. They were docked points before being relegated to the Championship, where they would compete in the 2020-21 campaign.

Despite a shaky start, losing to Cornish Pirates on the opening weekend, Saracens comfortably won the league and were promoted.

With a number of star names loaned out or spending long spells on international duty, they had to manage with a largely youthful and developmental squad. It should stand them in good stead for this start of this season, when Elliot Daly, Owen Farrell, Jamie George, Maro Itoje and Mako Vunipola will be unavailable following their participation in the British and Irish Lions tour to South Africa.

“There’s clubs who will start without their Lions players at the beginning of the season, which is an unusual thing,” McCall said.

“Some clubs are used to dealing without some international players across various points in the season but to start without them this season is a new challenge. So how teams deal with international absences, the length of the season, is going to be interesting.”

Maro Itoje was one of five Saracens players to tour with the British and Irish Lions this summer (Getty Images)
Maro Itoje was one of five Saracens players to tour with the British and Irish Lions this summer (Getty Images)

The 2021-22 Premiership campaign is different to any in recent seasons. The title will be contested between 13 teams, with round byes for each side, and no relegation.

Next season the league will expand once more, to 14 teams. For Saracens, it means the reinstatement of several players – including Alex Lozowski, Ben Earls, Nick Isiekwe and Alex Goode – who left on loan last term to play top-flight rugby and trim the wage bill. 

“It felt like being home, just how I knew it,” said Lozowski, who won the Challenge Cup on loan with Mohed Altrad-owned Montpellier last season, of his return to Saracens.

“Even though a few people have changed, a few players and staff, it’s the same place and the same atmosphere and it felt really good to be back.”

Of this season, he said: “Anything is achievable. In terms of a target, in all the years I’ve been at Sarries, we’ve never once sat down at the start of the season and spoken about targets or what we want to do or what we want to achieve. It’s not really the way we do things, even when we won all of those trophies.”

Saracens are known for their Wolfpack mentality, an us-versus-them outlook to rugby, both on and off the pitch. That mindset helped them to block out criticism from other clubs and fans throughout their last Premiership season and the club that everyone else will be desperate to beat may need to draw on it this season as fans return to the terraces. 

“You hear what’s shouted from the stands sometimes,” Lozowski said. “If you’re on Twitter or reading the newspaper, there’s certain things you come across and notice about what people are saying about your team but all of our motivation comes from within and doing it for each other. I wouldn’t say we’re doing anything to prove anyone wrong, it’s more to just prove ourselves right. That’s where our motivation comes from.”

Saracens open the Premiership season away at Bristol Bears, last year’s table toppers and losing semi-finalists. The Bears established their 27,000-seat Ashton Gate Stadium as a cauldron of rugby pre-pandemic, matched only by their electric style of play on the field. 

Saracens last played Bristol Bears at Ashton Gate in August 2020, where they lost 16-12 (Getty Images)
Saracens last played Bristol Bears at Ashton Gate in August 2020, where they lost 16-12 (Getty Images)

“Friday night is going to be a good test because as well as the Lions players who are unavailable, we have a number of people who won’t play through injury [Duncan Taylor, Goode, Sean Maitland, Max Malins],” McCall said. 

“There’s a different way of looking at that with the opportunity it gives to our younger players who have been developing well over the last couple of seasons and we’ve got massive belief in these younger players.”

Saracens face a Bristol side known for their attacking threat. The West Country club look for space anywhere on the field and exploit it, a tactic which has seen many admire their style.

“They’re [Bristol] very ambitious and well organised. Every player in that team, one to 15, knows exactly where they need to be within their structure,” said Lozowski.

“Obviously players like [full-back and former All Black] Charles Piutau, who I played with at Wasps – he’s just a brilliant rugby player and great to watch. It’s great to have him in the Premiership and hopefully we can keep him quiet on the weekend because he’s a phenomenal rugby player.”

Having served their time in the Championship and retained much of their title winning squad, Saracens are back with a point to prove. They may not want to shout about it but silverware will be the goal, and this time around without the asterisks.