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By Behind the Bench
February 23 2017

Saracens face a Sale Sharks side over their recent poor form as they bid to avoid a third straight loss against opposition who have not won at Copthall in five attempts. 

Looking at the statistics, it's probably an over-simplification, but there's an argument that Gloucester won with a Saracens' style performance. Faced with a minority of possession and territory, with Saracens having a reported 62% of the ball; they made double the number of runs and significantly more passes with more ground made. Gloucester made 156 tackles to the visitors' 92, as the starting back row made 40 between them. In attack, Gloucester showed the clinical touch in attack which has settled so many tight games in Sarries' favour, and was expected to emerge here again. But, as Saracens will be the first side to admit, no side has the right to win every game, and with Exeter taking full advantage in recent games, there is still work to be done to secure the top two spot which appears to have been a given for so long. There were bright spots, though, Schalk Brits early score being a fine exhibition of assured multi-phase handling which seemed to have set a platform for victory at a ground where there have been mixed results in recent campaigns.
Sale have been common opponents for Saracens in recent seasons, with this being the 16th meeting between the sides in just five seasons equalling the number of games against Northampton. In 2012/3, they faced each other four times, as Saracens won both Aviva Premiership meetings, including the last league fixture at Vicarage Road, 32-12, but lost in the LV Cup at both pool and semi-final stages at the AJ Bell Stadium. Saracens completed the Premiership double with two tight wins against the Sharks in 2013/4, whilst in 2014/5, the teams met on four more occasions, as each side won its home Premiership fixture, but Sarries claimed both wins in the European double header. Last season saw another heavy win for Saracens in the season opener at Allianz Park ahead of a classic 36 all draw at Barton, whilst earlier this campaign, three meetings were compressed into four weeks, as Sarries' 28-13 league win in the North West preceded a repeat of the 2014/5 home and away Champions Cup wins. 
Since the December meeting between the sides, the Sharks have gradually regathered their form. 2016 concluded with a 24-5 loss at Northampton Saints, and they looked to be drifting into relegation trouble when they suffered an eighth straight loss across all competitions in the notorious 24-23 home loss to Bristol, the aftermath of which was dominated by the sacking of Tom Arscott for leaking team information (Ashton Gategate?). A more satisfactory losing bonus point was collected in a 29-23 loss at Harlequins, ahead of an impressive display in a 27-12 Champions Cup loss at Toulon before recording a rare win in the tournament in the final match at home to Scarlets. Although they failed to progress in the Anglo Welsh Cup, they won their last two wins in that competition, against Cardiff Blues and at Harlequins, adding two more wins in the Premiership, a thrilling 26-24 home success over Newcastle Falcons augmented by Sunday's notable 34-28 success over Wasps as their attacking prowess set up a fine victory which some frantic defence preserved.
In a club reinvigorated by the signing of Jason Robinson from the 13-man code in 2000, which culminated in the 2006 title win, another Rugby League convert has made a dramatic impact already, with the wrangles over the transfer of winger Denny Solomona from SuperLeague side Castleford Tigers proving well worth it with a hat trick served up against Wasps in a game which saw him make 39 metres and make four clean breaks and one kick, so a story of absolute efficiency. In that game, the Sharks dominated possession and territory as Wasps made twice as many tackles as Sale did, but the home side only completed three quarters of those they attempted. But, on their day, the North West side are one of the best sides in the competition to watch, yet, Saracens will be keen to snap onto any stray passes as they look to counter attack, though need to be aware of one of the most effective rolling mauls at this level too, although their lineout went astray at times on Sunday. 
A possible Saracens line up sees Matt Gallagher back at full back, with Chris Ashton and Mike Ellery on the wings, and a centre partnership of Marcelo Bosch and Brad Barritt, with Alex Lozowski and Richard Wigglesworth in the half backs. Forwards-wise, Richard Barrington should come in at loosehead, with Schalk Brits staying at hooker and Petrus du Plessis back to start at tighthead. Michael Rhodes and Jim Hamilton are a possible second row, with a back row trio of Kelly Brown, Will Fraser and Jackson Wray. Sale will probably make minimal changes, with Mike Haley at full back, and Solomona on the right wing, with Byron McGuigan on the left and a centre partnership of Will Addison and Johnny Leota. Sam James and Mike Phillips should form the half-back duo. Into the pack, and Ross Harrison, Rob Webber and Halani Aulika are a possible front row, as Bryn Evans and Tom Curry team up at lock, and the back row could consist of TJ Ioane, Magnus Lund and Josh Beaumont.

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23/02/2017 08:34
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