Strength in depth and bonus points will be key factors in Premiership title race as Wasps keep pace with Saracens
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Saracens will end the year at the top of the Premiership table on points difference after their 21-6 victory in a routine outing against Newcastle Falcons on Saturday.
The Hendon-based club will be pleased with their efforts thus far, having only suffered two narrow losses to Harlequins and Bath.
However, Wasps continue to keep pace with the reigning champions after their bonus-point win over Bath and look set to be Sarries’ biggest challengers in the second half of the campaign.
The pair are not due to meet until the clash at the Ricoh Arena in May - and while there is a way to go yet, it may be a showdown that settles the battle for first place.
Both sides have key players to return to action before that meeting, but Saracens’ director of rugby Mark McCall will probably be feeling the more apprehensive of the two at the moment, having now lost both of the influential Vunipola brothers.
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Mako Vunipola picked up a knee injury against Sale on December 18 and initial reports suggest he could be out of action for three months.
He joins his brother Billy in the treatment room, and the double blow is a bitter one, not only for Sarries but for England too - the pair have been instrumental in the success of their club and national teams, and they will be sorely missed.
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With a Champions Cup duel with Toulon in the diary in January, followed by a Six Nations tournament which will rob Saracens of some of their top international talents, McCall will need to count on his squad men more than ever, and the reserves will need to pick up the baton and aid the charge for the finish line.
Strength in depth will be important, and Wasps are beginning to mould a group that has similar quality to Saracens’ own roster.
Bonus points will also be vital - both sides have six as things stand, and an extra one here or there could be decisive.
If Saracens are to finish in top spot, they have to be as prolific as Wasps have been in front of the try-line, scoring at every opportunity.
Their rivals have easily been the most successful side in the top flight so far in that department, registering 359 points in their 11 league games, compared to Sarries’ tally of 283.
On the other hand, Wasps have conceded 231 points, compared to Saracens’ miserly 122, so Dai Young’s team will need to improve their defence if they are to overtake their foes and secure top spot going into the play-offs.
With both teams unbeaten at home in the Premiership this season, the teams in the chasing pack will be looking to exploit the holes and weaknesses that have stopped the leaders from maintaining unbeaten records in the first half of the campaign.
But Sarries’ first port of call in 2017 will be a trip to Welford Road and Leicester Tigers on New Year’s Day.
The home side have struggled to find a prolonged spell of form in recent times and lie fifth in the table. They have faced a barrage of criticism for their failures in the league and in Europe, and this could be the best possible time to play them.
Key players like Freddie Burns will be looking to continue their run of strong individual performances – but Saracens’ players will hardly be short of motivation.
The title race is hotting up and there is a Lions tour on the horizon in 2017. Players from across the home nations will be attempting to raise their game and secure a seat on the plane to New Zealand, which should only help Saracens’ cause as they attempt to defend their domestic and European crowns.
Follow me on Twitter @AaronTillyer