Glasgow’s accusations of Saracens cheating have ratcheted up what was already a Champions Cup quarter-final with extra edge in north London today. “There is a bit of a spark between us, there is no hiding that,” says George Kruis, Saracens’ England lock forward. “It gets the feel of a series about it, if you play three times in five months or so. There are some games which just have a bit more bite about them.”
Kruis went on to name-check Saracens’ best-known domestic rivalries in recent years, first with Northampton, then Harlequins. Now the enmity has gone cross-border, with a series of incidents in this season’s two pool matches sharpened by meetings between many of the players in the colours of England and Scotland.
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“We quite like the fact we are playing them again,” Kruis says, in the knowledge Saracens, the Premiership champions and number-one seeds in Europe’s last eight, are lacking only Mako Vunipola and Richard Wigglesworth from their first-choice line-up. “There is a good amount of rugby that has been played, and a good amount of feistiness. I wouldn’t say any of us is frightened of it.”
From edge to rivalry
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European Professional Club Rugby, the competition organisers, have appointed Nigel Owens, veteran of a record six finals, as referee, mindful that both sides have been testing the old line about rugby being a game for hooligans played by gentlemen. At Scotstoun in October, the home team thought they had scored a crucial try in the opening pool match, but Saracens’ Maro Itoje spotted the officials motioning to disallow it. Adam Hastings, the Glasgow fly-half, didn’t see that, and as he ran in to celebrate with his team-mates in front of cheering fans, he gave Itoje a shove in the back. Itoje, either for retribution or a bit of fun, joined in with the Glasgow exultations, with both arms mockingly in the air.
By the time of the return match at Allianz Park in January, Saracens were hurtling towards six pool wins out of six, but the Scots were going through to the last eight too, as runners-up, and when one of their scrums piled forward, they celebrated in Saracens style and in Saracens’ faces, with young Mr Hastings running in again to have his say.
“After the away game, I think we picked up some burgers and headed off straight to the flight,” says Kruis, who hasn’t worn a Saracens jersey since that final pool match, a 38-19 win to go with Sarries’ 13-3 success in the first meeting, as he has been busy on excellent form with England in the Six Nations, including a chargedown try against Italy, and then had a rest for last weekend’s league win over Harlequins. “What we don’t want now is anything to take away from us going out to perform.”
Glasgow’s head coach Dave Rennie appeared to attempt such a distraction when he commented that Saracens try to con referees into changing decisions by engaging in “push and shove” after the whistle. Kruis gives a scoffing response:“Not unless they’ve been coaching that in the last month and a half while I have been away. That is him [Rennie] maybe trying to get in the referee’s mind. Nigel Owens is a good referee and we can ignore that one, I reckon.”
Or will they? Saracens’ captain Brad Barritt explained how Saracens’ bristling attitude in the pool stage stemmed from the two-time winners being in Glasgow’s current position as bottom seeds in last season’s quarter-finals, and eliminated by Leinster. “There will be a few feelings carried over from the last two games,” Barritt said. “The breakdown was contested very hotly.”
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So Saracens will not want to blow their hard work by blowing their tops. “It is not something we would actively encourage him to do again,” Barritt said of the mickey-take by Itoje, who is returning from two months off with a knee injury. Kruis, 29, has had Itoje, who is on the flank today, packing down alongside him for the last four years. “He’s a good leader and sets good examples,” says Kruis. “I am sure each team thinks each other’s players have got some annoying ones in there. That’s the way rugby is.”