20 January 2022
Fixture: Saracens v London Irish
Competition: EPCR Challenge Cup, Round 4
Date: Sunday 23rd January 2022
Stadium: StoneX Stadium
London Irish are in the hunt to secure their place in the EPCR Challenge Cup Round of 16 this Sunday, playing out their final pool stage match against Gallagher Premiership rivals Saracens for the first time on the European stage.
Whilst Saracens enjoyed a bye week in Round 3, the Exiles added yet another win to their ever-growing collection of comeback victories this season, with Olly Cracknell’s converted try snatching victory from the jaws of defeat against Edinburgh Rugby.
The 21-20 win gave Irish a five-point cushion at the top of Pool C, with Mark McCall’s side now next up, as they look to cement their status in the Challenge Cup knock-out stages for the third time in their last five attempts.
Sarries, meanwhile, go into Sunday’s clash seeking a sharp upturn in results in Europe following their opening home loss to Edinburgh and concession against Section Paloise.
The boss – Mark McCall
Mark McCall took up his current position as Director of Rugby of Saracens in 2011, having been appointed as Head Coach two years prior.
He led Saracens to their first Premiership final in 2010 before embarking on an unbridled decade of success in North London, securing five Premiership titles, three Champions Cups, one LV Cup and a Championship trophy.
The 54 year-old also brought his native Ulster their first and only professional league success in 2006, then linking up with current CA Brive coach and friend Jeremy Davidson at Castres before joining Saracens.
London Irish were one of a few clubs that McCall suited up for in his playing days, alongside stints at Ravenhill with Ulster and also representing his country 13 times in the 1990s.
One to Watch – Nick Isiekwe
Having been tipped as ‘close’ to another international call-up by Mark McCall, 23-year-old Nick Isiekwe was unlucky to miss out on England’s Six Nations squad this week after adorning the Red Rose three times at just 19.
A member of Saracens’ prized engine room, Isiekwe has played over 900 minutes in the 4, 5 and 6 jerseys this term and undoubtedly benefited from more Premiership experience when on loan at Northampton Saints last year.
The second-row forward boasts some eye-catching statistics that highlight his credentials to progress and re-enter the international fold; trailing only Irish's own Matt Rogerson (244) in hitting more attacking rucks in the Gallagher Premiership this season with 241, combined with his four line-out steals that are only bettered by team-mate Maro Itoje and Wasps’ Elliott Stooke, who each have five.
The club’s Player of the Month for December was also nominated for the most recent Rugby Players’ Association ‘U23 MVP of the Month’ alongside recent England squad member and Exile, Ollie Hassell-Collins, shining throughout the festive period despite the pair ultimately losing out to Leicester Tigers’ Freddie Steward.
Isiekwe made 34 tackles, won 14 lineouts, made 73 metres of ground last month, whilst also touching down in a 61-29 romp against Worcester Warriors at the StoneX Stadium.
Classic Encounter – Saracens 13, London Irish 22 – February 8th 2014 – Aviva Premiership
Tries from Matt Parr, Alex Lewington and George Skivington gave London Irish a deserved if unexpected win over capital rivals Saracens away from home back in 2014.
Mark McCall’s men, who were first in the Premiership and had tasted defeat only once in the league that year, were stunned in the first 40 with James O’Connor opening proceedings by nudging the Exiles into an early lead.
The North Londoners laid down the first marker nonetheless as Marcelo Bosch crossed over, before Matt Parr dotted down for his first Premiership try in green with late replacement Alex Lewington punishing his future employers following a charge down of Charlie Hodgson’s clearance.
Lewington also played a hand in the third before the break, locating George Skivington with a smart grubber, before Irish shut out their hosts until the final five minutes where Schalk Brits’ unconverted effort restored some pride for Sarries.
Tries: Marcelo Bosch, Schalk Brits
Penalties: Charlie Hodgson
Tries: Matt Parr, Alex Lewington, George Skivington
Conversions: James O'Connor (2)
Penalties: James O'Connor
Speaking on the possible return of Saracens’ stalwart out-half Owen Farrell, Director of Rugby Mark McCall offered an update on the 30 year-old's condition ahead of the European grudge match.
“Owen is back training hard with Joe Shaw and is ahead of schedule," McCall stated.
"The plan is to give him a run out against London Irish."
Farrell, who still retains the eighth most Premiership points despite only making four Club appearances this campaign, has been unable to take to the field since England’s home win against Australia over two months ago after undergoing ankle surgery.
“He is incredibly fit and I’m sure Eddie Jones will be wanting to take a look at him if the game goes ahead; given we are both in the same country, there shouldn’t be any problems.
“We still have another game to go after that [London Irish], away at Wasps, and if Eddie wants Owen to get in another game we would be very happy to oblige!”
(Preview by Ryan Fitzgerald-Nolan)