Five defeats in a row, two talismanic players absent through long-term injury and the suggestion that the bubble may just have burst. For the first time under Mark McCall’s reign, questions are being asked of Saracens and whether they’ve taken a turn for the worst.
But talk of their demise could prove to be greatly exaggerated this weekend if Saracens repeat their European Champions Cup final victory when they welcome Clermont Auvergne to Allianz Park. The back-to-back European fixtures are often a daunting period in the season, with internationals returning from a bruising autumn campaign and key fixtures going a long way to determining who features in the knockout stages later in the season.
For Saracens, they desperately need to come out of the Clermont double-header with the advantage. The two Premiership defeats last month by Gloucester and Exeter Chiefs were not entirely a surprise given the absence of England internationals Maro Itoje, Owen Farrell, Mako Vunipola, Jamie George and Nick Isiekwe, but last weekend’s last-gasp loss to Harlequins was enough to trigger alarm bells.
Sarries struggle on the road when it comes to facing Quins, which is no surprise given the intense hatred that resides at the Twickenham Stoop for the north Londoners, but the result means that it’s not completely out of the question that Saracens could go seven matches without a win. That, for the reigning European champions, would be unacceptable.
But with Itoje now joining No 8 Billy Vunipola on the sidelines after fracturing his jaw last weekend, the Sarries’ slump is at least explainable. Vunipola is still about a month away from returning after suffering a second serious knee injury in the space of five months, and Itoje looks certain to return at some point during the Six Nations next year after having surgery on his facial injury this week.
Importantly – and this is something that Saracens have bought into under McCall’s reign – the silverware is not handed out at this point of the season. That comes in May, and you can bet your bottom dollar that they will be in the mix come the book-end of the season. With just a point splitting Saracens and Clermont though, European rugby could be a completely different beast this season to the last two campaigns that ended with Saracens lifting the trophy.
Both teams are likely to make it out of the pool stage, with Pool 2 currently the strongest on paper when it comes to points scored and score difference, such is the power that the two heavyweights contain. But top spot will be crucial as it will likely secure a home quarter-final, while the runners-up will almost certainly have to hit the road in the last-eight. Allianz Park and the Stade Marcel Michelin are nightmare propositions for any team to have to deal with in Europe, and holding home advantage will feel like a passage into the last four for Saracens and Clermont. Their recent records suggest as much.
Saracens face a season-defining week of fixtures against Clermont Auvergne (Getty)
But should Clermont get the better of Saracens – and after Ospreys pushed them to the wire in the last round of fixtures – we may just be witnessing the end of their stranglehold on European rugby. That’s why so much is riding on this weekend and the next, and if Clermont discover a way to end their recent hoodoo against Sarries, it could result in the changing of the guard at the top of the European table.