In January, the Saracens began a chaotic month with a significant “confrontation” against Leicester.
The positive update for Saracens is that the rest of 2024 will not be as challenging as the beginning. In January, the champions of the Premiership will face French teams Bordeaux and Lyon, who are currently leading their Champions Cup group, as well as Exeter, who are performing well. Prior to that, they will begin their new year with a match against Leicester Tigers at Welford Road, a venue where they have not been victorious since October 2019.
“The way it appears and sounds may seem challenging,” explains Kevin Sorrell, coach for Saracens’ attack and backline. “However, this is what we thrive on.”
If it seems chaotic for the club at this time, it is only slightly more hectic than what has become the norm in rugby union. The sport is widely recognized as being in its best state ever, with significant improvements in speed, strength, and skill that have raised the level of excitement to previously unimaginable heights. However, this progress has come at a cost. Fixed seasons are now almost obsolete as top players are caught in a never-ending cycle of training, playing, and recovering throughout the year. Several England players, including seven who will be competing on both teams this Saturday, essentially went straight from receiving their bronze medals at the World Cup to playing in their club’s match.
Sorrell acknowledges that the season has been particularly grueling due to the consecutive 16 weeks of both Premiership and Europe competitions. Additionally, the development-focused Premiership Cup was scheduled alongside the World Cup to accommodate players on international duty. The physical demands on the players have been comparable to a car accident every week.
Ensuring the well-being of players has become increasingly crucial. However, when it comes to achieving peak performance, it can be challenging to balance on-field expectations. Recently, Bath made the decision to field a less experienced team at Welford Road, fully aware that a defeat would result in losing their top spot in the league. Despite scoring two late tries, they were still handily beaten 35-22.
According to Sorrell, the approach will vary for each club as they face a new team. This indicates that it is necessary to successfully complete the campaign. He also mentions that from their perspective, being part of the senior squad means being capable of both competing and representing the team. Therefore, regardless of who the opponent may be, it is seen as an opportunity. However, it is important to keep in mind the long-term goal of allowing players to rest, making the situation tricky.
Fortunately for Sorrell, he is not responsible for making those decisions. The task falls to two individuals, Phil Morrow, the general manager, and Tom Sherriff, the head of athletic development. This highlights the fact that managing a rugby team in today’s game is a complex and demanding task that requires the input of multiple minds.
Sorrell praises Phil’s track record of prolonging people’s careers. Skipping a single rugby game may not have a significant impact, but the amount of training time and cumulative effects throughout the week are crucial. Our team has strict guidelines for on-pitch time to manage workload, with some clubs training four days a week while we train for three. As a result, 75% of our week is dedicated to training, which is where the majority of our workload comes from.
Both teams have chosen not to play with a less experienced lineup as they strive for a victory to return them to their perceived rightful position. At the midpoint of the season, Saracens are in fifth place, but a win could potentially propel them to first by the end of the weekend, depending on the outcomes of other matches. Leicester is currently seventh, just outside a tight group of six teams separated by only three points.
Sorrell notes that a condensed league is a positive indication of a successful product. It demonstrates the strength of English domestic rugby, despite numerous off-field challenges. However, this also means less time for players to rest, especially for ambitious clubs aiming for a spot in the semi-finals.
According to Sorrell, Saracens will most likely attempt to kick the ball out frequently due to their narrow pitch and the opposing full-back, Freddie Steward, who is known for knocking the ball on often. This tactic makes sense, as Saracens currently lead the Premiership with eight tries scored from rolling mauls and have gained the second-highest number of metres from these plays. It is anticipated that Saracens will continue with this strategy, but Leicester also has a strong enough team to compete in physical match-ups.
“When [Steve Borthwick] joined the team, they reverted back to their core style,” Sorrell explains in regards to the Tigers’ physicality. “They have a formidable pack. However, they are also excelling in their playing of rugby. It promises to be a fierce match.”
Are they all the same? There is no such thing as a simple rugby game, especially at this level. Even lopsided victories come with a level of danger, as underfunded and less skilled teams are still capable of delivering a powerful hit during a tackle or at the breakdown. Risk is inherent in the nature of the game, adding to its excitement. However, for those responsible for both managing the athlete and the person, the difficulty has never been higher.