Less than three weeks after they met in the Premiership, as Saracens claimed an impressive 28-13 win in the North West, NW4 sees the first match of the European double header with Sale Sharks, who have lost their first two matches, in contrast to Sarries taking nine points from ten with that famous win at Toulon followed by a bonus point home success over Scarlets.
Saracens are clear favourites to retain their title in Edinburgh next May, with Clermont, Wasps and Racing 92 making up the likeliest quartet in the eyes of the bookies, and favourites for their respective pools accordingly. The matches with Sale are a repeat of two seasons ago, when the sides contested the double header then too, although the other way round, as a tight 19-15 win in Barton was followed by a 28-15 success in North London in what was also a Saturday evening match. In a pool also containing group winners Clermont and Munster, Saracens qualified as one of the best runners up.
The Premiership match at the AJ Bell on 20 November saw Alex Lozowski's creative kicking in open play as well as his goal kicking to the fore, and though Josh Beaumont broke through for a try to the hosts, some assured handling and offloading fashioned a score for Marcelo Bosch, contributing to a 13-7 interval lead for the visitors, with Matt Gallagher scoring soon after the break as the visitors pounced in an error at the lineout, and Lozowski set up another try for Ben Spencer to seal the game. The game saw both sides make an equal amount of ground, but, Saracens demonstrated a far more clinical edge, and poor discipline, with too many missed tackles, harmed Sale's hopes. However, fly half AJ McGinty made a decent contribution from the boot whilst beating seven defenders and making a reasonable amount of ground, and, though it didn't prove costly, Saracens conceded far more penalties than their hosts, who had far more possession but did little with it.
It got no better in the two matches Sale have played since then. At Wasps, they conceded five tries in a 34-24 loss, allowing the home side to make in excess of 700 metres, and again conceding far too many penalties, although Bryn Evans did score a pair of tries, with full back Mike Haley also on the scoresheet. Of most concern, though, has been Sale's poor home form, where, in previous seasons, strong results on home turf have delivered European qualification, yet their latest match there saw them struggle to make an impact in a 21-3 reverse to Exeter Chiefs with the Devon side enjoying a clear majority of territory, possession and distance made, even if the Sharks lineout and scrum remained relatively solid.
Saracens will be looking to cement their strong European start and overcome the disappointment of last week's narrow defeat, with their England contingent now available again, and in equally powerful form for club and country, as winning becomes a habit, although there is the significant blow of the loss of Billy Vunipola. A possible line up has Alex Goode at full back, with Sean Maitland and Chris Wyles on the wings outside a centre partnership of Bosch and Brad Barritt. Owen Farrell comes back at fly half alongside scrum half Richard Wigglesworth. Into the forwards, and Mako Vunipola should slot back in alongside Jamie George and Juan Figallo, with a timely reunion of the lock combination of Maro Itoje and George Kruis, and a back row of Michael Rhodes, Schalk Burger and Jackson Wray. Given their modest form, Sale will probably look to try and secure a morale-boosting win even if their focus is now back in the Premiership realistically, so would probably expect to field a strong line up. Haley should be at full back with Tom Arscott and Josh Charnley on the wings, outside a centre partnership of Sam James and Johnny Leota. McGinty and Peter Stringer should team up in the half backs. In terms of the pack, Ross Harrison, Rob Webber and Brian Mujati should form the front row, with a second row duo of Evans and Jonathan Mills, and a back row of Cameron Neild, David Seymour and Josh Beaumont,
Looking more broadly at the state of play in Europe, Pool 1 is headed by Munster, who have only played one game due to the untimely passing away of Anthony Foley on the morning of the Racing 92 away game in October. The Irish province face a decisive double header against a Leicester Tigers side who have impressed in patches, but have not been entirely consistent. However, it is Racing who are tipped to top this pool. Although skewed by the presence of a Zebre side struggling in the Pro12, it is still impressive to see Connacht heading Pool 2, in a week which has brought the news of the shock departure of coach Pat Lam to Bristol next season. An injury-hit Wasps should still have enough to claim a pair of victories against them, which would set up a key last pool game at home to Toulouse. In the other Pool 3 encounter, Toulon face Scarlets, with the first match in the South of France, with both sides level on points at present. The intriguing Pool 4 is the only one which can still be won by all four of its participants, as only two points splits them, each side having won a game apiece. Although Leinster are the present leaders, Montpellier are tipped as pool favourites, with Castres and Northampton Saints the other sides in the running. ASM Clermont Auvergne are the only side to have a perfect ten points, dismantling Exeter Chiefs, who seem out of contention already, in the first game and playing Ulster home and away in this month's fixtures.
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