Premiership 2021-22: Saracens tipped for title challenge on return to top flight


Saracens celebrate with the Premiership trophy in 2019
Ten of the starting XV from Saracens’ Premiership final triumph in 2019 remain at the club despite a year in the second tier of English rugby

The fall was sudden and unprecedented, but now comes the return – which could end in glory.

Five-time Premiership winners Saracens are back in the top flight following time in the relative wilderness of the Championship.

The north London club have retained their core of international players, while blooding youngsters last season and allowing others to gain experience from loan spells.

As Sarries retake their place at the top table they arguably do so in a stronger position, and the club are certainly tipped to be among this season’s title challengers.

Do Saracens have a point to prove?

Despite their relegation at the end of the 2019-20 campaign for persistent breaches of the salary cap, Saracens kept their domestic silverware and three European Champions Cups.

The validity of the club’s past glories have been questioned, adding to a siege mentality and an already high level of determination to win at the StoneX Stadium.

“I wouldn’t say we’re doing anything to prove anyone wrong, it’s more just to probably prove ourselves right,” centre Alex Lozowski said.

“A lot of people have had a lot of things to say but we don’t take too much notice of it.

“We’re just trying to concentrate on what’s important to us and then we’ll just have to see where we are at the end of the season.

“We’re highly motivated and a lot of it comes from within. Perhaps we’ll be able to put all those things that have been said to bed.”

Director of rugby Mark McCall admits some members of his squad have “certain ways of motivating themselves”.

“There are individuals within the group who have got certain feelings,” McCall added.

“But from my point of view, I don’t want to be too stuck in the past. I want to look forward as much as possible.”

Stronger after year in exile?

A stint in the second tier proved restorative for the club, with McCall crediting “unity and togetherness” for helping them come out of “crisis mode”.

Saracens finished top of the Championship table in a campaign shortened by the coronavirus pandemic and then swatted aside Ealing Trailfinders 117-15 on aggregate in the play-off final.

They managed to retain their influential England contingent of Owen Farrell, Maro Itoje, Jamie George, Elliot Daly and Mako and Billy Vunipola despite the prospect of a season outside the Premiership.

McCall, who showed his own commitment to the club by extending his contract until 2025, was pleased with the faith those stars showed in the club, and how they relished the challenge of winning promotion.

Saracens pair Owen Farrell and Maro Itoje celebrate promotion to the Premiership
England captain Owen Farrell (left) and international team-mate Maro Itoje both stayed at Saracens following relegation

Some return from an underwhelming British and Irish Lions tour to South Africa with a point to prove, while number eight Billy Vunipola was overlooked for selection entirely by Lions coach Warren Gatland.

Then there are the players who will put on black shirts again this year having gained experience on loan elsewhere last season; Ben Earl and Max Malins helped Bristol finish first in the Premiership, Nick Isiekwe was at Northampton while Lozowski was in France with Montpellier.

Alex Goode and Nick Tompkins had returned earlier in the year to help seal promotion after spells in Japan and Wales respectively.

“The senior internationals stayed at the club, the loan players have had really successful years away from the club and they’ve come back better players than they were,” McCall said.

“We’ve had some young lads who have had more time than they would have had, so those three things are powerful.”

Saracens will provide a ‘huge challenge’ – the view from the opposition

It is unlikely Saracens will receive a warm welcome from any stadium they visit this season, but opposition coaches and players are well aware of their threat.

Harlequins scrum-half Danny Care thinks Saracens boast the best squad in the league and must be considered favourites for the title, while Exeter captain Jack Yeandle says Sarries possess “an infrastructure that’s proved successful”.

Saracens begin their return at Bristol on Friday (19:45 BST), and Bears rugby director Pat Lam expects his side’s opponents to be “straight back into it”.

“At the end of the day, Mark is still in charge there,” Lam said.

“We all know the history of why they went into the Championship, but a core group went through there and has come out as well.

“Nothing changes around the Saracens way.”

Saracens director of rugby Mark McCall
Mark McCall has guided Saracens to five Premiership titles, three European Champions Cups and promotion from the Championship

Rob Baxter and his Exeter side went up against Sarries in three Premiership finals and lost them all, but the Chiefs director of rugby thinks the return of their rivals will have a positive impact on the quality of the league.

“They’ve always been well coached, well run, well motivated, so they’re going to be a huge challenge for every team they play,” Baxter said.

“But I don’t think that’s a bad thing for the Premiership – challenges are what it’s all about.

“I think we probably accelerated our improvement as a team based on having a team like Saracens to go after.

“I don’t see it as a negative that there’s a team there that will challenge you and that you may have to set very high standards to beat. I think that’s what sport’s about.”

Sarries are going to be ‘seriously dangerous’

Analysis – BBC Rugby Union correspondent Chris Jones

I know a lot of rugby teams channel an ‘us against the world’ mentality, but that underpinned Saracens’ dominance. They are going to have that in spades this season.

Most people accept they have done their time and paid their penance. They have lost some players but have still kept their core.

There will be some Saracens Lions coming back with a point to prove, whether it is Owen Farrell or Jamie George, who didn’t even make the third Test squad.

They have Max Malins and Ben Earl back from Bristol, which puts pressure on Bristol as their squad on paper now looks weaker than it was and their expectations are higher.

I think Sarries, without the Champions Cup to distract them, are going to be seriously dangerous. I’d be surprised if they are not in the final.

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