An emphatic Saracens victory on European quarter-finals weekend, with two pivotal matches looming on the horizon, sounds like familiar ground for Mark McCall’s side but these remain uncertain times for the London club. They were at least able to field five of their six England stars in an eight-try 54-13 Championship win against Bedford on Sunday – and McCall is hopeful that his newly appointed captain, Owen Farrell, will be fit to return next week – but their next two fixtures threaten to be among the most important in their recent history. Just as much as all those European heavyweight clashes.
For Saracens, now up to third, face Doncaster away on Sunday and Ealing Trailfinders seven days later. Both those sides have won all five of their opening Championship matches, the latter averaging more than 50 points a game. Should Saracens lose both they would be facing a potentially ruinous second season in the Championship and even if they endure defeat in one their fate will most likely be out of their hands. Farrell cannot come back soon enough then, even if Billy Vunipola and Maro Itoje made their presence felt on their first club appearances of the season with two tries apiece against Bedford.
There are, at least, signs that they are adjusting to life in the second tier – the result against Bedford Blues, who are not in the tranche of Championship clubs with Premiership ambitions, was never in doubt – but it would be generous to say Saracens are hitting their straps just yet. In truth – the obvious exception of the European quarter-final win against Leinster last season – you could probably count on one hand the number of times they have been since their relegation was sealed.
Their season began with a considerable shock in the defeat at Cornish Pirates – Ealing won there emphatically on Saturday – and while routine wins have followed it is hard to escape the feeling that Saracens are still to move through the gears.
They have three comfortable wins against Jersey, Richmond and Bedford under their belts now and the expectation has always been that they would waltz their way to the Championship play-off final when bolstered by Farrell and co but they are not performing at that level yet.
Of course, these are players who can thrive when the pressure is at its most intense but McCall is only too aware improvements are needed in the coming weeks. “We need to win the next game,” he said. “Doncaster are unbeaten in the competition – so it’s a game we have to win – and then the next week [against Ealing] is exactly the same against a team who are absolutely flying in the league and have been together all season. We need to get better quickly but I’m sure we will.”
It took only six minutes for Itoje to make his mark on the Championship with a close-range try after Elliot Daly, who looked assured at outside-centre, had gone close. Billy Vunipola was next over, thundering through the Bedford winger Pat Tapley on the right.
When Itoje – after a trademark chargedown – and Vunipola, from the back of a powerful scrum, went over again the influence of Saracens’ England internationals was evident with Mako Vunipola and Jamie George also adding their muscle to the front row.
“Across the board they’ve been good since they’ve come back,” McCall said. “They’ve been in for the last couple of weeks, rolled their sleeves up and been really positive around the place. They were all good today and it’s good to have them back.”
Itoje generously shipped the ball on to Aled Davies early in the second half when he could surely have added his hat-trick try before Bedford replied with the score of the game, Tapley finishing off after a fine charge up the middle from the flanker Ollie Newman.
A yellow card for the Bedford replacement Sean McCarthy was followed quickly by a flurry of tries for Saracens through Jaco Venter, Andy Christie and a penalty try to ensure a first half-century of points for the season.
“It definitely wasn’t perfect, far from it,” McCall said. “We’d like to be better but this team hasn’t been together for a long time. The aim is for us to improve week on week. When you score 50 points you shouldn’t grumble too much.”