Exactly a year has passed since Edinburgh ransacked the StoneX. Since Mike Blair took his evolving team to London and outgunned a Saracens side laden with trophies and excellence and the longest of rugby CVs.
Mark McCall put out nearly all of his big dogs that day, save the injured Jamie George and Owen Farrell, and the rested Theo McFarland. The Vunipola brothers, Mako and Billy, were in the front and back-row. Maro Itoje, one of the most instantly recognisable rugby players on the planet, was in amongst them. So too was Ben Earl, the Premiership’s player of the year-in-waiting, while Max Malins speculated on the wing. He topped last year’s league try-scoring chart and is topping it now all over again. The majestic Alex Goode started at full-back. Alex Lozowski pulled strings from 12 with Wales centre Nick Tompkins on the bench.
Up to that Challenge Cup opener, Edinburgh had dazzled. They powered through the calmer waters of the URC, with their new, fluid, entertaining style to the fore. They were scoring crackers and dismantling opponents. The problem was, they hadn’t beaten anybody of note. Meek Welsh regions, toiling to compete, were seen off. So were Zebre Parma. The South African franchises, shorn of their Springboks and grappling with a chill Edinburgh autumn, were winless in the Scottish capital.
Were Edinburgh really flying, or was the fixture list a misleading PR quirk? They hadn’t faced any of the heavyweight Irish provinces. They had not gone to any of the seriously daunting championship venues and prevailed. They were yet to experience a URC match on South African soil. None of this was lost on Blair.
That Saracens clash was the biggest test of Edinburgh and their rookie head coach, and what a test it proved. The game ebbed and flowed, the lead changing hands, momentum swinging. Edinburgh barred up defensively in a way that typified the heady early days of Richard Cockerill’s reign. Their set-piece held firm against a mighty pack. And to that steel, they added a wonderful flourish of the Blair blueprint when Charlie Savala arced a kick-pass into the arms of rampaging Argentine, Ramiro Moyano, to plunder the visitors’ first try. That combination of brawn and brain, grunt and gift, is the cocktail Edinburgh seek.
Triumphing at the StoneX, against a team of front-liners, proved Edinburgh were the real deal. Their challenge now, when they return to London and Saracens on Sunday, is to prove they belong at Europe’s top table. And it will be an altogether sterner foe standing in their path.
Their lust to reclaim the European throne in the wake of the salary-cap scandal, the ire of their rivals, and the resounding condemnation from across the game burns bright.
Since losing the final in gut-wrenching fashion on their return to the Premiership, Saracens have grabbed the league by the scruff. They are the only unbeaten team left in the competition; played nine, won nine, with seven try bonus points secured. They average more points and tries per game than any other side. They make the most line-breaks and beat the most defenders. Their set-piece can be a telling weapon and they have added beautiful layers to their attacking game. Nobody has come up with a formula to stop them.
What Saracens also possess is resilience by the bucketload. On their last Premiership outing, Northampton Saints fetched up at the StoneX and were 39-17 up with only 26 minutes remaining. Saracens blitzed him in a frenzied and ruthless final quarter, with Earl, Goode and Daly to the fore.
Their affinity with the Champions Cup is immense, too. Saracens have won the sport’s ultimate club prize three times under McCall’s stewardship. Their lust to reclaim that throne in the wake of the salary-cap scandal, the ire of their rivals, and the resounding condemnation from across the game burns bright.
English rugby, of course, is still reverberating. Eddie Jones sacked and Steve Borthwick, at the heart of so many great Saracens days, poised to replace him.
Jones built his most successful teams around a Saracens core, and stuck with them through darker times, selecting them during their season in the Championship perhaps to his detriment. He retained faith unerringly in Farrell when most of England was screaming for Marcus Smith. He has bounced Maro Itoje between lock and six in an effort to best harness his talismanic prowess, often with former Saracens boiler house colleague George Kruis. He has made Jamie George a brilliant staple of the England front-row, jostling with Luke Cowan-Dickie. He jettisoned the Vunipola brothers largely to see how each would respond in adversity. Both are firmly back in the fold. You wonder what these players, men who have been part of the Jones reign from its earliest hours in 2016, must make of this past week and whether a sense of personal responsibility will spark a collective response.
You wonder, too, about those Jones saw fit to do without. Earl, in particular, has been a searing, snarling bundle of venom for Saracens. His carrying is immense. His tackling thunderous. He has all the tools to flourish as a Test player, even while England have such back-row riches. Accolades and plaudits have come Earl’s way, but no cap for nearly two years.
In the back-three, Daly was a Jones favourite in the lead-up to the 2019 World Cup, but Freddie Steward’s crashing arrival on the international scene has shunted him not only out of the starting XV, but out of the squad altogether. In a backline light on guile and panache throughout 2022, Daly’s play-making intelligence and top-end speed would be an asset. Even more so as the Saracen racks up performance after blistering performance for his club. Malins and Lozowski will also be eyeing events Twickenham closely. Suddenly, their World Cup prospects look brighter.
Darcy Graham is the most grievous loss in the short term. Only Kurt-Lee Arendse could trouble the little Hawick demon if we’re picking the world’s form winger.
What of Edinburgh? Their second-half collapse against Munster was ominous. From 12-0 up, they lost 38-17 as their set-piece disintegrated, their attack imploded and errors spewed out of them at a frightening rate.
They are shorn of two key figures, totemic even. Hamish Watson has been out since suffering a bang on Scotland duty. Watson has not been as eye-catching or as influential this season, after a gruelling year that began with the Lions tour of South Africa and ended with three meaty Tests in Argentina a dozen months later. The hope is, the rest and recovery will have him motoring come the business end of the campaign. Sam Skinner, the former Exeter forward, is out too.
Darcy Graham is the most grievous loss in the short term. Only Kurt-Lee Arendse could trouble the little Hawick demon if we’re picking the world’s form winger. Graham scorched home for eight tries in the first five rounds of URC action, topped the league charts for line-breaks and tackles broken, and then scored four tries in as many Autumn Nations Series Tests for Scotland, featuring a dazzling hat-trick against Argentina and a brilliant interception effort to halt the All Blacks’ momentum.
Graham scored his ninth Edinburgh try of the season against Munster last Friday, then damaged his knee. He will not be seen on the field again until February. A bleak prognosis for Blair. The Edinburgh coach has options to join colossal Duhan van der Merwe and Emiliano Boffelli, the outstanding Puma, in his back-three, but none are as compelling as Graham. Wes Goosen, a marquee summer addition from the Hurricanes, starts.
Saracens’ form is rampant; Edinburgh’s oscillating. A year on from the StoneX triumph, they will need all their strength and all their skill to upset the apple cart. Same venue, same teams, very different story.