2nd Dec 2012 3:47pm | By Michael Gadd
North London’s Saracens could hardly be better placed as the end of 2012 nears.
The defending Aviva Premiership champions are entrenched in the top three of the domestic competition after 10 games, with easily the best defensive record.
And coming into the next fortnight’s home and away Heineken Cup clashes with Irish giants Munster, they’re sitting pretty at the top of pool one after convincing round one and two wins.
But this side is ambitious, and as their South African scrum-half Neil de Kock says, they’re refusing to forget last year in a hurry.
“It’s pleasing where we are at this stage of the season, but it’s early days, and it’s always these back-to-back fixtures that can make or break you when it comes to being in a position to make the knock-out stages,” the hard-working playmaker from Cape Town says.
Saracens were stellar in England’s top club competition last year, finishing with the most wins and holding off Leicester Tigers in the grand final.
But in rugby’s answer to the Champions League they were a flop, losing all their games and missing the knock-out stages.
Granted, their pool included the eventual winners, Ireland’s Leinster and France’s Clermont, who made the semi-final.
At least they’ve already exorcised their demons with the other team to beat them – they flogged France’s Racing Metro 30-13 in October.
“That was disappointing for us in the Heineken Cup but amazing to win the Premiership,” de Kock says.
“We are an ambitious club and would like to think we can challenge hard in both competitions. It’s demanding on the squad, but that’s why we turn up to training every day.”
The Saracens defence is their strength – they memorably withstood a 30-phase onslaught in the closing minutes of the last Premiership final to hold out Leicester and keep a 22-18 lead – but after scoring seven tries in their opening two games against Edinburgh (45-0) and Racing Metro, they’re showing shades of genuine diversity.
“We pride ourselves on defence,” de Kock says ahead of clashes with former Heineken Cup champs Munster.
“It’s going to be tight. We’ve got loads of experience and I do believe we’ve got the calibre to get a result (at Thomond Park in Limerick) and do the same when they come here.
“They’re a team that have been there and done that over so many years, so the top level is just second nature to them. We’re a pretty young team in that regard.”
London Wasps were the last England team to take Europe’s top club prize in 2006/07, beating Leicester in the final.
Since then, Ireland and France have had a mortgage on the title, Leinster with three (including the last two in a row), and Munster and France’s Toulouse with one each.
If Saracens do the job this year, they’ll do it with a large portion of help from overseas talent, especially South Africans – there are seven Saffas in the first team squad.
Their side, much like Aviva Premiership leaders and London side Harlequins, who are also leading their Heineken Cup pool, also features six England representatives.
“We’re a real cosmopolitan team,” says de Kock, who’s playing his seventh season for Saracens. The team also includes players from Italy, New Zealand, the US and Namibia.
“That’s the way the game’s going these days, all the major European clubs have a strong international contingent,” de Kock says.
South Africans feature heavily in Europe, more than their southern hemisphere counterparts New Zealand and Australia who won’t pick overseas-based players for their national teams. South Africa only recently changed their tune on the policy.
”We pride ourselves on our away record, and that could be part of it, we don’t have as many home-grown guys,” de Kock says.
The return match against Munster will be only the third time this year Saracens have played at their “home” ground, Vicarage Road, Watford.
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