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Saracens fan Ben Ireland explains why team are still underdogs when it comes to latter stages of the Heineken Cup
My finger nails were lucky enough not to have to go through the drama of last Saturday’s game against Racing Metro live – and even watching it back, knowing the final score, I struggled to believe at times that we would recover the deficit.
But as sloppy and painful to watch as the first 30 minutes were, the subsequent 50 were focused and beautiful to the same extent.
The composure to hold out till half-time; the cool-headed change of tactics; the self-belief to implement those tactics effectively enough; the physical stamina, or the mental hunger - whichever it was - to rise through the gears as each 10 minutes passed, all contributed to a memorable Heineken Cup win.
The praise from supporters across the league was plentiful, and phrases such as “finest performance ever” were discussed in our own camp.
The above qualities are absolutely integral to success in a competition as fearsome as the Heineken Cup – and they will stand the Men in Black in good stead as we roll on towards a quarter-final, wherever that may be.
However, naturally, as we progress further, the quality of opposition gets higher. Last year we came severely unstuck at home to the brilliant Clermont Auvergne – who bullied and suffocated their way to a 22-3 win.
Whichever teams we face this time round, two things seem likely: they will have an enormous set of forwards, and we will need to score tries to get a result. These were the two problem areas against Clermont, and I’m not convinced that they have been fully resolved, yet.
Eager as we were at the beginning of last week’s game, the Racing forwards were simply bigger (often by a lot) than ours; they ran at pace, they dominated the collisions, they offloaded the ball, and it all went in a downward spiral from there. Luckily they’re not a well-disciplined pack.
But the likes of Toulon, Ulster and Clermont combine the two. The likes of Brits, Borthwick, Fraser and Joubert – whatever praise you give them – are not especially big specimens (relatively). We might, on our day, be able to counteract their size with sheer strength of will, but it’s not a sustainable method.
On the try-scoring front, a lot has been made of these issues all season, and I see definite signs of progress – in both intent and outcome. However, if we had to chase a game against any of the three sides mentioned above, I wouldn’t put money on our success – not least because our attack game usually relies on our forwards getting well across the gain line.
There is good chemistry growing in the midfield, and Goode offers so much class from full-back (when fit!). But quite how best to use the talents of Strettle, Ashton and Brits is still being worked on.
I believe we’ll see a lot more cohesion – and the results to show for it – towards the end of the season on the infamous ‘hard grounds’. Whether it will be enough to see us threaten the best in Europe, though, remains to be seen.
In case this is sounding a little too pessimistic, allow me to restore the balance.
For all the controversies and issues around the signings of Billy Vunipola and James Johnston, what no one can argue is that we’ve got ourselves well over 40 stone, which doesn’t spend much time going backwards. We’re clearly addressing the issue of sheer bulk.
And as I’ve said before, for me our attacking game is all a question of time, and especially of increasing familiarity. Next season will be very interesting in that regard.
So I’m not saying we should be despondent about Europe this season, far from it – just that we need to appreciate our limitations. I do think 2013-14 is another matter, though. It was a five-year plan after all.