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Saracens can’t afford Euro hangover in must-win Connacht clash

Saracens' Jackson Wray (right) in action against Newcastle Falcons at Allianz Park. Saracens' Jackson Wray (right) in action against Newcastle Falcons at Allianz Park.

Friday, January 17, 2014
6:00 PM

Saracens will go into tomorrow’s must-win Heineken Cup group finale at home to Connacht with Jackson Wray determined that they won’t wilt like as they did after their first defeat to Toulouse.

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The four-time champions completed a Pool 3 double over the Hendon side last Sunday with a 21-11 win at the Stade Ernest-Wallon.

It leaves the Premiership leaders needing to beat Irish province Connacht at Allianz Park in order to qualify as one of the two best group runners-up.

They can ill-afford to follow up a disappointing trip to southern France in the same manner they did when Toulouse ended their unbeaten start to the season at Wembley in October.

A heavy 41-20 domestic defeat at Northampton Saints was the result and any drop in standard will see Saracens’ interests in the Heineken Cup end – potentially forever as the wrangles over the future of the current European format show no signs of resolution.

Wray, who will starts on the bench, told Sarries TV: “We lost to Toulouse last time at Wembley and that was another tough defeat to take, then the next week [against Northampton] we didn’t perform and that’s something we want to put right.

“We want to go out there [against Connacht], perform well and get the points we need.”

A second victory against the RaboDirect Pro12 basement boys is by no means a foregone conclusion as their previous battle at the Sportsground in round one proved. Sarries scored two quick-fire tries but then had to hold on in a nervy second half to win 23-17.

It was a Jean-March Doussain goal-kicking masterclass that did for Sarries in France at the weekend – despite Chris Ashton claiming the only score – as all the Top14 side’s points all came from the fly-half’s seven penalties after the Londoners suffered uncharacteristically at the breakdown.

Top try-scorer David Strettle said: “Obviously we’re all very disappointed with the result.

“We must give credit to Toulouse, they played brilliantly and really made life difficult for us throughout the game. They got their noses in front and were tactically very good.

“We are frustrated but we now look forward to Connacht on Saturday and look to bounce back from Sunday. One thing this group has proven in the past is that we respond well to setbacks, so we won’t dwell too much on the defeat.”

A victory will assure Saracens of a place in the quarter finals, albeit away from home, as only Leicester – in Pool 5 with 20 points – have a better record among the second placed teams in the competition.

The attack-minded Men in Black have been imperious this season on the artificial surface of Allianz Park, but defensive coach Paul Gustard says his men won’t take lightly their Irish visitors – who still have a mathematical chance to qualify if they win.

“The prerequisite is still to get a result against a very dangerous Connacht side,” he said.

“We are fully aware of their strengths, having played them before and getting a narrow victory down at their ground against a side that has beaten Toulouse on Toulouse’s home patch.

“It’s a side that we’re definitely not underestimating.”

Sarries have made a number of changes for the Connacht game. In the backs, Charlie Hodgson replaces Owen Farrell at fly-half, and is partnered by Richard Wigglesworth in the halves. Scotland international centre Duncan Taylor comes into the midfield, as Chris Wyles is named among the replacements.

In the pack, Matt Stevens returns to the front row starting at tighthead prop, and in the second row, England Saxon lock forward George Kruis partners captain Steve Borthwick.

Saracens: 15. Alex Goode, 14. Chris Ashton, 13. Duncan Taylor, 12. Brad Barritt, 11. David Strettle, 10. Charlie Hodgson, 9. Richard Wigglesworth, 1. Mako Vunipola, 2. Schalk Brits, 3. Matt Stevens, 4. Steve Borthwick (capt), 5. George Kruis, 6. Billy Vunipola, 7. Kelly Brown, 8. Ernst Joubert

Replacements: 16. Jamie George, 17. Richard Barrington, 18. James Johnston,

19. Alistair Hargreaves, 20. Jackson Wray, 21. Neil de Kock, 22. Owen Farrell, 23. Chris Wyles

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