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Saracens take on Harlequins this weekend with a new brand of rugby to bring to the Premiership table
What a difference a year makes.
This time last season, Saracens found themselves fielding weekly inquests about an inability to score tries and an indifference to anything more romantic than racking up more points than the opposition.
Before their first Premiership game at Allianz Park on February 14, ‘boring Sarries’ sat third in the table but had scored the least number of tries in the league.
They had 14 in 14 matches. Harlequins, who Sarries play at the Stoop on Saturday, had the most with 34.
This weekend’s fixture was once a contest of the beauty against the beast, but these days Saracens are a very different animal.
Three matches, three bonus-point wins and, pertinently, 13 tries scored mean the Men in Black are not only leading the league by four points, they’re doing it in style.
In Sunday's 31-17 victory over Bath, Mark McCall’s men had the bonus point wrapped up even before half-time.
“It’s amazing,” said winger David Strettle, who scored two tries in the match. “To get three bonus-point wins, you can’t ask for anything more really.
“It’s just great that the boys are playing well and we’ve played some really good rugby in these first few weeks too.”
The artificial turf at Sarries’ new ground – slick, colourful, dry and even – has undoubtedly helped. Saracens hauled their try-scoring total up from 14 to 41 in the eight games after they moved to Barnet last season.
“We’ve moved in, we’ve scored more tries,” Strettle said. “It could be something to do with the pitch but both teams are playing on it.
“I think it is a quicker game in the sense that the ball’s not filthy when it’s raining. We looked at some of the clips from when we played Bath in fixtures gone by and one of them was just a mud bath, it was crazy.
“Then to come up here at Allianz Park [against Bath on Sunday] and play on this surface – it does make a difference.
“It could be mental as well, the ball’s clean and you want to throw it around a bit.”
There are other factors at play though. Saracens are blessed with some of the best ball-carrying forwards in the league who can combine the force of a shoulder with a flick of the hands in one moment.
With Billy Vunipola now joining the likes of brother Mako, Schalk Brits and Matt Stevens, Sarries boast penetrative players all over the pitch.
“We’re blessed with so many ball runners in the team,” Strettle said. “When you’re playing with the likes of Billy, Mako and Matt Stevens, these are technical guys who are top ball players and when they run a line they’re going to suck two or three defenders into trying to tackle them.
“Some of the offloads these guys can do – it’s dream play.”
He continued: “When you try and defend and put all your efforts into defending those guys and it’s sucking more players in, it’s always going to leave overlaps out wide.
“It’s tough trying to defend against that because even if you do the right defence if you’re two or three numbers down, then we’ll score in the corner.”
McCall revealed how the Sarries coaching staff sat down over the summer to tweak the team’s attacking system.
The plan they came up with was a simple one: get the team’s most destructive players on the ball as often as possible.
“It’s a work in progress," McCall said. “It’s a much more flexible attacking system than the one we used before.”
No team in Premiership history has ever started a season with four consecutive bonus-point victories and Saracens are only the second side ever to have opened with three. The other was Harlequins.
New systems, new personnel and a new pitch have created a new product at Allianz Park but Strettle, who played for Quins for four years, insists it’s still about winning.
“I don’t think we ever go out and say we want to get a bonus point here or get a bonus point there,” he said.
“We go into a game wanting to get the basic areas right and if we get them right the tries will come.
“If you start games saying you want four tries you suddenly turn around and see you haven’t even got a win.”
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