Saracens show their resolve again against Scarlets - now can they complete the double over Toulon?
- Credit: PA Wire/PA Images
Draws are relatively rare in rugby so it is certainly unusual that Saracens have now had two in a row – but the character and resolve they have displayed in both matches has been entirely familiar.
Last weekend the Hendon-based outfit fought back from 10-3 down with 14 men to draw 13-13 with Exeter in the Premiership.
Then, on Sunday, they dug deep again away against Scarlets in round five of the pool stage of the Champions Cup.
The visitors were trailing as the final play of the match arrived, and Will Skelton was in the sin-bin, but Chris Ashton’s last-ditch try and Owen Farrell’s conversion levelled the scores at 22-22 at the death.
Saracens were on the ropes for a substantial part of the game, with their Welsh hosts showing why the Parc y Scarlets is such a fortress - the home side have been unbeaten in front of their own fans for four months, and even the reigning European champions were unable to get a foothold and stem the tide.
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Yet the north Londoners have become a team that doesn’t know it’s beaten. All seemed lost and they were a man down again, but they were able to pull off another emphatic comeback and earn a share the spoils.
While the forwards produced the breakthrough against Exeter, this time it was the quick thinking and composure of the in-form Farrell - the stand-in skipper - which created the crucial moment of magic that penetrated the defence in the 82nd minute and sent Ashton over the whitewash, breaking Scarlets’ hearts.
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Again, it wasn’t the result Saracens were aiming for – a victory in Wales would have set a new record of 14 consecutive European victories – but it was nonetheless worthy of celebration in the circumstances.
Mark McCall’s side remain unbeaten in continental competition since April 2015, while they have booked their place in the quarter-finals for the sixth year in a row.
They can also now look forward to a blockbuster of a clash at Allianz Park on Saturday against a Toulon side that are at risk of an early elimination from a competition they won in 2013, 2014 and 2015.
Sarries won the reverse fixture 31-12 in round one, inflicting Toulon’s first ever home defeat in Europe.
However, they will need to repeat that feat (or get yet another draw) to ensure they achieve their goal of a home quarter-final - their visitors are five points behind and teams that finish level are separated by their head-to-head record.
McCall’s team have worked incredibly hard to get to this position, not least against Scarlets in their last outing, but the job is not yet done and a defeat this weekend could still leave them with a dreaded away tie in the last eight.
Sarries must be tactically astute and assert their own control on the game, as they did so brilliantly at the Stade Felix Mayol back in October.
Toulon commit men at the breakdown in defence, and a combination of phase play from Saracens’ forwards and an expansive style of rugby will draw in their defenders and tire out the big Toulon pack, creating gaps.
Meanwhile, out wide, 33-year-old winger Bryan Habana is a player to target. The Springbok centurion is somewhat shaky in defence and he has gone off the boil in an attacking sense lately – he has only scored three tries this season and his age seems to be catching up with him.
Toulon need maximum points – nothing short of a bonus-point win will do and their team of Galacticos will be focused on that aim.
But Sarries have already achieved the impossible by triumphing in the south of France earlier this season, and that will give them great confidence that they can now do it again on their own patch and give themselves the best chance of defending their trophy.
Follow me on Twitter @AaronTillyer