Glasgow’s forwards coach Dan McFarland has played Sarries in Europe before now, when he coached Connacht three years ago, and it didn’t end well for the Irishmen that day.
“In [coach] Pat Lam’s first year at Connacht we had Saracens,” said McFarland. “We did all right at home (they lost by six points) but away from home we lost by 60 points and that’s because we got behind on the scoreboard early in the game, were left chasing the game and they exploited us ruthlessly.”
McFarland moves with Warriors head coach Gregor Townsend to Murrayfield this summer to take up national team duties and the next two weeks will determine if he does so with a smile on his face and a spring in his step.
Glasgow are hanging on by their fingernails in two competitions; facing the best team in Europe in the knockout stages of the Champions Cup on Sunday before travelling to Cork to play Munster, the form team in Europe, in a must-win Guinness Pro12 match the following Sunday. If results don’t go Glasgow’s way then McFarland can start clearing his desk a week on Monday.
The team have waited a long time for this moment, 21 years to be exact, but Glasgow reached the quarter-finals in style with back-to-back pool wins over Racing ’92 and Leicester Tigers.
McFarland explains that he was left in no doubt that Europe was a priority from the moment he set foot inside Scotstoun but, having finally got to the promised land, the Warriors could hardly have drawn tougher opposition than the current holders.
“They haven’t lost in Europe in two years, they are the best team in the Aviva Premiership and arguably the best team in Euope at the moment,” said McFarland.
“Those are challenges that we relish and are really looking forward to.”
So, are last season’s double winners a team without weaknesses, or at least without any glaring chinks in an impressive suit of armour?
“That would be a good assessment,” said McFarland. “When you look at them, that is one of the things that you find. They do base their game, as one of their players said at the weekend, on their pressure game. However, they scored a fantastic counter-attack try against Bath [on Sunday], one of the best tries of the season, and then, once they got on top, they could open up their game and show their skills.
“They certainly have the ability to play with width and tempo and play attacking rugby, which most people wouldn’t associate with Saracens.
“We always knew they could do that but it isn’t the primary issue you have to deal with.
“You have to deal with the pressure game first because it can be stifling. You can find yourself on the back foot, having points chipped off you.”
Saracens’ principal backer is South African millionaire Johann Rupert, the club boasts several high-profile Saffas and they take a leaf from the Springboks’ pressure play book. Saracens kick for field position, chase hard and squeeze teams into making mistakes.
A quick glance at the twin centres who started against Bath gives a good idea of what teams are up against. Brad Barritt and Marcelo Bosch are two rock-solid, hard-running centres who form a brick wall defence that Glasgow will have to find a way around.
Sarries also share several players – and some of the same self belief – with Eddie Jones’ England squad so, did McFarland learn anything from Scotland’s recent humbling at Twickenham?
“There are certainly things you learn from individuals in their team, he replied.
“They have key players in their team, like Itoje. Maro Itoje is a fantastic player, a fantastic athlete but also a clever and ruthless player. I will have learned a lot about him from that game.”
But, rather than individual players, McFarland prefers to point to the collective work of the Sarries’ forwards who go by the nickname “the wolf pack”.
“They’ve got great individuals but what characterises them is not their individuals but their team play, their work ethic off the ball, their ability to consistently chase, to get off the floor and into the line in defence, to get off the line in defence and put their bodies on the line in terms of physical tackles.
“They use that work ethic and the tough edge to suffocate teams, so breaking them down is a difficult process but we feel within our team we have the ability to do that.”