Saracens contemplate European retaliation amid domestic slump

In order to improve the mind, we ought less to learn, than to contemplate. So wrote René Descartes, the 17th-century French philosopher Saracens players have become used to discussing in a group organised by the club’s psychologist, David Jones, as part of the club’s team-building ethos.

There will be contemplation aplenty at Allianz Park after the defeat at Harlequins last Sunday meant the European Champions Cup holders had lost three consecutive Premiership matches for the first time since 2010, the season they made their breakthrough after years of inconsistency.

In 2010 Saracens lost at Wasps, at home to Bath and then away to the bottom club, Leeds in a run of matches during the Six Nations. This season, they lost at Gloucester after dominating the first half and then did the same at home to Exeter before again seeing Harlequins come from behind late on at the Stoop last Sunday.
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The first two matches were played during the autumn internationals when they were without six players, as well as the injured Billy Vunipola, but they were close to full strength at the Stoop, as they were on their previous two league visits to the ground, which also ended in defeat.

Saracens’ success has made them prime targets for England to the extent that not only did they lose their outside-half Owen Farrell last month but also, although he was released to play at Gloucester, his backup Alex Lozowski. The second row Nick Isiekwe, groomed this season to take over from Maro Itoje and George Kruis in the international windows, played for England against Samoa.

Sarries are finding their resources stretched and since defeating London Irish at the end of October, they have lost their two matches in the Anglo-Welsh Cup, against Harlequins and Sale, followed by the three league defeats. On Sunday they face Clermont Auvergne at home in the European Champions Cup, the last team to defeat them in the competition in the 2015 semi-final.

Clermont, the French champions, have won only one match on the road this season, at Ospreys on the opening weekend of the Champions Cup, with five defeats and a draw at Oyonnax away from their home ground where they have a 100% record. It is a meeting of the sides who contested the final last May at Murrayfield and with both starting their European campaign with two victories, a home victory will be the sweeter for the denial of a losing bonus point.

Saracens are no more at crisis point than Clermont, who while lying ninth in the Top 14 are only three points behind third-placed Lyon. Their current slump, which follows defeats at Worcester and Gloucester during the Six Nations last season, may prompt a debate over the practicality of having so many England players, but what is also relevant is the way the game is now placing more emphasis on retaining possession, something the Premiership champions and current leaders Exeter are masters at.

Saracens in their league pomp were not the team to play catch-up against, but they let eight-point leads in the final quarter slip against Gloucester and Harlequins and led Exeter by nine at half-time. In each case, they lost to a try, not a penalty. They were games they used to see out and they lost to the Chiefs at Sandy Park in last May’s play-off semi-final to a late try.

The Premiership will reach its halfway point in the next round just before Christmas but already, to look at two of last season’s play-off teams, Wasps have lost as many matches as they did in that campaign, four and Saracens have lost four compared to five. What has been notable in the last three months is the cluster victories and defeats are coming in.

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