Saracens are in great shape going into 2017
PUBLISHED: 11:47 22 December 2016 | UPDATED: 11:47 22 December 2016
It took a moment of brilliance from Saracens newcomer Will Skelton in the final stages of the away tie at Sale to set up a victory that now equals Munster's run of consecutive European wins.
Skelton’s stunning offload to the try scoring Owen Farrell sealed the game for Saracens before a Nathan Earle try moments later gave the Hendon-based club a 24-10 victory to end the year unbeaten in the European competition
It was the reigning champions’ 13th win on the bounce, equalling a run set by Munster between 2005 and 2007. Victory at Scarlets in round six will set a new record and make them the competition’s history makers.
Having not lost a European match since the semi-final heartbreak in 2015 against French giants Clermont Auvergne, Sarries used that disappointment as motivation to come back even stronger. They did so in emphatic style – winning in 2016 against the soon-to-be Top 14 champions Racing 92.
The win at Sale, though – contrasting with the previous week’s demolition of the same opposition – hands Sarries full control of Pool Three, particularly after a sensational victory for the Scarlets against the visiting Toulon.
That being said, it also means Sarries become the only side unbeaten after four rounds of the competition.
Saracens are chasing back-to-back European titles as well as their domestic crown this season and have looked at times imperious in both facets of the campaign.
In comparison to their venture at the same stage last season, 19 points after four rounds proved a happy hunting ground in the pool stages for the north Londoners.
Competition between sides is arguably a lot stronger this time out, but having already racked up 18 points after dispatching Toulon in the fiery cauldron of the Stade Felix Mayol and back-to-back wins against Sale and a victory over Welsh side Scarlets, it’s difficult to comprehend how Sarries will be stopped.
The bulk of Mark McCall’s squad hasn’t altered greatly in the last 12 months.
A handful of additions in the summer have only proved the strength Saracens have in their ability to go about defending the title.
The injury to no8 Billy Vunipola was a huge blow but having a forward pack capable of rotating in a number of positions creates the perfect scenario for such situations.
The return of Vunipola will only emphasise their case for a successful title defence as the business end of the competition looms.
With the direction the tournament has taken for the north London outfit, a strong showing away to Scarlets in round five will effectively be game, set and match as far as the pool is concerned.
However, a round six home tie against Toulon will undoubtedly be the blockbuster. By then, though, the French club could be staring down the barrel of an early exit from the competition – unheard of in the south of France.
But as the curtain closes on 2016 for all teams concerned with the European crusade, you have to admire the tenacity of Saracens and the way they have gone about defending their title throughout the early stages.
Thirteen outright wins is no mean feat overall – so it may be a while before we see the next record set, but Sarries look odds on to go one better.
For now though, Sarries will take great encouragement from their year of European rugby. With one eye already on home advantage for the knockout stages in a time when Irish, Scottish and Welsh rugby is beginning to fire on all cylinders, a pragmatic approach from McCall will be sure to give Saracens the edge going into 2017.
The final game of 2016 will see the resumption of the Aviva Premiership, with Sarries welcoming Newcastle Falcons to Allianz Park.
To avoid their very own nightmare before Christmas, McCall’s men will need to be on their guard against high-flying Juan Pablo Socino, who has given the Falcons a great attacking surge of late.
A win, however, will continue to mount pressure on the chasing pack.
Follow me on Twitter @AaronTillyer