It is nine years since an English club lifted Europe’s premier club trophy but Saracens can sense their time approaching.
On their previous final appearance in 2014 they bumped into a Toulon team of rare ability and experience and were taught a lesson in how to seize major European trophies. Next month in Lyon they will be better equipped, in terms of both individual quality and collective resilience.
In addition to the battery-recharging potential of a social team-bonding trip to Dubrovnik this week, those involved in the near misses of past seasons also feel blessed to run out alongside a young player rapidly emerging as a once-in-a-generation talent. Even his most seasoned team-mates are struggling to recall a 21-year-old forward with a more precocious all-round game than Maro Itoje.
The long-serving Saracens hooker Schalk Brits, who has played Test rugby with such all-time second-row greats as Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha, is by no means an exception in regarding Itoje as “a special athlete” destined only to improve further. “He is the total package,” Brits said. “I shouldn’t say this but he’s already world-class. He will just grow every time he puts on the shirt. We just need to keep him healthy.
“There’s not a lot of players who are so mature at such a young age. I sometimes say: ‘Relax, go home and have a couple of beers.’ He is quite a serious guy when it comes to being professional on the pitch.”
Itoje was not alone in frustrating Wasps at source, with Mako Vunipola also having an outstanding game, but his man-of-the-match contribution in the lineout was warmly appreciated by Chris Ashton, a connoisseur of game-changing interventions in Europe. “He [Itoje] has got the longest arms I have ever seen,” the winger said. “I don’t know how he does it. I was standing on the wing watching those arms go up, just stealing lineout after lineout. Players with that ability stick out like sore thumbs. You can tell them a mile off.”
Should Saracens win the final they will be the first champion team in the tournament’s history to progress through an entire campaign unbeaten.
In addition to Itoje, their clutch of English grand slam-winning players have all returned from the Six Nations with appetites keenly sharpened. “I don’t want to say it’s our time but we’ve definitely got the potential to win this one,” Brits said, aware that his club are also poised to secure a home draw in their Aviva Premiership semi-final. “I think we understand what to do when the pressure gets put on us.”
Ashton hopes the disappointment of the 2014 Toulon finale will serve as an extra stimulus. “I think you have to lose finals to finally win one. I just hope we’ve lost enough now.”
Wasps are hardly the first team to find themselves squeezed and smothered into submission by opponents who know precisely where to tighten the screw. Dan Robson’s stunning try after 78 seconds and a couple of scintillating breaks from Christian Wade apart, they lacked sufficient possession and territory to apply any consistent pressure, with only a late crash-ball score from Ashley Johnson as consolation.
They remain in contention for the Premiership title but the game at Exeter this Sunday will be a test of stamina and resolve. Should they meet Saracens again in the play-offs, it is hard to see them enjoying a different outcome unless they can keep Itoje quiet and take the attacking gambles that Saracens’ defence tend to thrive on. The charge-down of Jimmy Gopperth’s kick by Michael Rhodes and a second-half penalty try might imply Saracens were a touch fortunate to win. In truth, had Owen Farrell been more accurate off the tee and Simon McIntyre seen red for his boot to the head of Itoje, Wasps could have lost by a significant margin.
The organisers will also be quietly relieved that just enough fans turned up to create a passable atmosphere, although how many Saracens supporters will now follow their team to Lyon remains a matter of conjecture. In terms of bums on seats Saracens can hardly claim to be European giants but on the field they increasingly have few peers.
Saracens Goode; Ashton, Taylor, Barritt (capt), Wyles; Farrell, Wigglesworth (De Kock, 76); M Vunipola, Brits (Saunders, 74), Du Plessis (Lamositele, 76), Itoje, Kruis, Rhodes (Wray, 63), Fraser, B Vunipola.
Tries Rhodes, penalty try. Con Farrell. Pens Farrell 4.
Sin-bin Farrell 50.
Wasps C Piutau; Wade, Daly, S Piutau, Halai; Gopperth, Robson (Simpson, 50); Mullan (McIntyre, 60), Festuccia (Johnson, 69), Cittadini (Swainston, 65), Launchbury, B Davies, Haskell (capt; Young, 60), Smith, Hughes (Jones, 69).
Tries Robson, Johnson. Cons Gopperth 2. Pen Gopperth.
Sin-bin McIntyre 68.
Referee R Poite (France). Att 16,820.
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