Fixture: Saracens vs. London Irish
Competition: Gallagher Premiership, Round 23
Date: Sunday 23rd April 2023
Venue: StoneX Stadium
Officials: Referee: Adam Leal; Assistant Referee 1: Andrew Jackson; Assistant Referee 2: John Meredith; No4: Simon Park; TMO: Dean Richards; Timekeeper: Frank Venner; Citing Officer: Jay Curts.
After a month away from competitive action, London Irish return for a London Derby against Saracens in Round 23 of the Gallagher Premiership at the StoneX Stadium.
The Exiles’ last outing saw them take a 37-22, bonus-point win over Northampton Saints to maintain their footing in the hunt for play-off positions for the first time since 2009.
Saracens, conversely, have had three gameweeks since another derby matchday against Harlequins, where the Men in Black triumphed 36-24 at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.
In that time, Mark McCall’s men progressed to the quarter-finals of the Heineken Champions Cup but were subsequently dumped out by reigning tournament champions La Rochelle, also succumbing to Northampton Saints 38-29 in the Premiership last weekend.
That win over Quins was one of only two in Sarries’ last five matches in league competition, nevertheless, they return home to the StoneX Stadium where they currently are on a 14-game unbeaten run that dates back to January 2022.
Irish have picked up six wins in their last seven Premiership games, including two away wins against Bath Rugby and Newcastle Falcons, with a prospective victory over Saracens this Sunday potentially their first trio of consecutive road wins since 2008.
Declan Kidney’s Exiles have enjoyed success against their Round 23 hosts of late, losing just once in their last six meetings in all competitions, but are seeking a first league win in north London since February 2014.
Saracens and Irish average a near identical 3.8 and 3.7 tries scored per game, ranking them third and fourth league-wide respectively, with the north Londoners averaging the most points scored per game (30.4) as Irish trail in third with 29 points per game.
In contact, both sides boast their reputable outlets; Nick Tompkins has made more choke tackles than any other player (10), and Tom Pearson has executed the second-most tackles in the league (219) – 21 of which have been dominant.
Pearson’s contributions have led Irish to have the highest rate of tackle success in the Premiership (90.2%), but they may well encounter running threats from former Exile Alex Lewington (most clean breaks this season, 24) and Alex Goode (most break assists, 19) this weekend.
The Boss – Mark McCall:
One-time Exile Mark McCall plied his trade for London Irish and Ulster as an inside centre, also representing his country, Ireland, 13 times before retiring aged 31.
McCall began his coaching career with his native Ulster, also representing Ireland A, to then succeed Alan Solomons in becoming Head Coach at the province in 2004.
He brought the Kingspan Stadium outfit their first Celtic League title back in 2006 before a downturn in form saw him leave his role and link up with former Irish teammate Jeremy Davidson at Castres Olympique.
Alongside his long-time collaborator, McCall managed a top six finish with the French outfit but a move to Saracens in 2009 saw him introduce unheralded success in the capital, including five Premiership Rugby titles, three Heineken Champions Cups and an Anglo-Welsh Cup.
One to Watch – Ben Earl:
In his half hour on the field against Saints last weekend, Ben Earl made six tackles and won two turnovers, one of only eight players in the round to manage more than one breakdown steal.
Earl has built up a reputation as an over-the-ball poacher, managing 24 steals and trailing only Harlequins’ Will Evans (26) this season, with Exile Tom Pearson closely following with 20 steals of his own.
A 93% tackling success rate in the Premiership this year, with 82 made from 88 attempts in 15 league games, puts him as one of the league’s premier defensive talents.
This term, the back-row forward has amassed eight tries across the Gallagher Premiership and Heineken Champions Cup, scoring in each of Saracens’ four pool stage matches against Edinburgh Rugby and Lyon.
In seven career appearances against the Exiles, Earl has dotted down three times whilst playing for the north Londoners and also on loan Bristol Bears.
25-year-old Earl is a Saracens Academy graduate who captained England under-20s to a 2017 Under-20 Six Nations Grand Slam, also being a squad member of his Club’s last two title lifts before being awarded last year’s Gallagher Premiership Player of the Season.
Classic Encounter – London Irish 27-24 Saracens – 1st March 2008 – Guinness Premiership:
A closely-fought London derby eventually saw London Irish pip Saracens to a 27-24 scoreline at the Madejski Stadium, the Exiles’ fifth successive league win at the time.
Saracens made their dominance count in the opening stages via a 30-metre Glen Jackson penalty, which was quickly counteracted with two successful place kick attempts from Peter Hewat for Irish’s first lead of the day.
Hewat compounded Sarries’ difficulties with another penalty after Kris Chesney was sent to the bin, Jackson’s swift response bookended by Hewat’s 12th point of the day before Ben Skirving dotted down.
His score took the visitors into a lead at the interval which was only furthered by more points from Jackson, but two quickfire breakaway tries from Sailosi Tagicakibau and Gonzalo Tiesi re-established Irish’s footing.
Jackson kept chipping away at the scoreline to reduce arrears for his side to five, Hewat then trading a kick to take his tally to 17 but an unconverted Kameli Ratuvou try and last-minute penalty miss from Jackson condemned Saracens to a loss.
Tries: Sailosi Tagicakibau, Gonzalo Tiesi
Conversion: Peter Hewat
Penalties: Peter Hewat (5)
Tries: Ben Skirving, Kameli Ratuvou
Conversion: Glen Jackson
Penalties: Glen Jackson (4)
Mark McCall, Saracens Director of Rugby, praised the resilience and fight in his side as they suffered a 38-29 loss over Northampton Saints at the cinch Stadium at Franklin’s Gardens.
“We were in the fortunate position of being able to rest a number of players so the outcome of the game wasn’t of major importance," McCall stated.
“We showed a considerable amount of resilience and fight against a fully-loaded opposition before a big crowd.
“The sending off made the game even tougher for the youngsters but it also added to the experience for them.”
The Irishman opted to leave out many of his regular starting players in front of a sold-out Franklin’s Gardens, but still nevertheless took a 10-0 lead before a Duncan Taylor red card swayed the favour of the tie.
“We made a mistake in not going seven and seven when we lost a player as we gave them too much space with only six defenders behind the scrum and it certainly improved when we made the change.
“Northampton are a very dangerous team if they click and when they get it right are certainly hard to handle.”