Sarries kick off title defence against Wasps
September 2, 2011
Saracens will have Schalk Brits in their ranks after the Springboks opted against taking him to the World Cup © Getty Images
Saracens will kick off the defence of their hard-won Aviva Premiership crown against London Wasps at Twickenham on Saturday in the second match of the traditional season-opening double header.
Director of rugby Mark McCall will steer Sarries into the new campaign with the ink just about dry on a new three-year deal with his entire backroom staff also along for the ride until 2014. They will be hoping last season's memorable triumph will be just the start but they face an early test of their title credentials with a host of first team players away on World Cup duty including the likes of flanker Jacques Burger, prop Matt Stevens and fullback Chris Wyles all absent. But South Africa's reluctance to pick Schalk Brits leaves in the mix while England rejects Mouritz Botha and David Strettle are also at their disposal.
Wasps have undergone a vast reconstruction over the summer in the hope of finding the kind of form that has brought them a hatful of Premiership titles although the last of those was four seasons ago. New boss Dai Young has injected plenty of fresh talent with Welsh fly-half Nicky Robinson and former Leeds Carnegie lock Marco Wentzel among them. And while the retirement of No.8 Dan Ward-Smith and a season-wrecking injury for flanker Tom Rees will have dented their hopes, they will be confident of raising the bar this term.
Saracens - Player to Watch: Fly-half Owen Farrell steered Sarries to Premiership glory last season but faces pressure for his place in the form of veteran Charlie Hodgson. Can he lay down a significant marker in the first game of the season?
Saracens - Team News: Steve Borthwick captains a side that also includes fellow England second row Mouritz Botha while Rhys Gill, Schalk Brits and Carlos Nieto make up the front row. In the backs, Owen Farrell is named at fly-half with Adam Powell at centre alongside Brad Barritt. David Strettle, James Short and Alex Goode make up the back three. On the bench, new signings Charlie Hodgson, Ben Spencer and Duncan Taylor are all in line to make their full Saracens debuts. Sarries are without Matt Stevens, Richard Wigglesworth, Chris Wyles, Hayden Smith, Jacques Burger, Kelly Brown, Michael Tagicakibau and John Smit who are all on Rugby World Cup duty.
London Wasps - Player to Watch: Cast aside by England, centre Riki Flutey will want to offer Martin Johnson a reminder of what he can do in case injury opens the selection door once again.
London Wasps - Team News: Five of the starting team are new to Wasps this season with Hugo Southwell, Chris Bell, Nick Robinson, Marco Wentzel and Jonathan Poff all making their competitive debuts for the club. Up front, England international Tim Payne corners the scrum alongside Rob Webber and Ben Broster. Established Wasps lock Richard Birkett packs down with former Springbok Marco Wentzel in the second row while 20-year-old Joe Launchbury takes his place in the back-row alongside captain John Hart, and Jonathan Poff who has joined the club from the Canterbury Crusaders. In the backs, Charlie Davies takes the No.9 shirt after an impressive pre-season, while Flutey and Chris Bell take their places in the centre outside fly-half Nick Robinson. Speedsters Tom Varndell and Christian Wade start on the wings while experienced Scottish fullback Southwell wears the No.15 shirt.
Key Battle: The second row duo of Borthwick and Botha were a rock for Sarries for much of last season and will look to offer a similar secure footing at Twickenham with Wasps' Richard Birkett and Marco Wentzel tasked with meeting that challenge.
Trivia: Director of rugby Mark McCall has a perfect record in the Premiership with Saracens having played 11 and won 11 since he took over from Brendan Venter in January.
Stats: Wasps have won none of their last three visits to Twickenham while Saracens achieved a double over their Adams Park rivals last season for the first time since the 1997-98 season.
"People say Sarries is a special club and they are right in many ways. There is a fantastic group of people here."
"Saracens were deserved champions last year and we're under no illusions about the challenge they are going to present to us this weekend."
Prediction: A settled Saracens side are still riding high on their Premiership victory and will prove too strong for a new-look Wasps side that boasts talent but needs time to gel.
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