Saracens' evolution allows them to play it more than one way
José Mourinho may not be liked by many outside Stamford Bridge but he is widely respected for his footballing nous. He has proved time and again, with different clubs, that he excels as a tactician. So it was again this week as Chelsea turned round a 3-1 first-leg deficit to make the Champions League semi-finals at the expense of Paris Saint-Germain.
John Terry, speaking after Tuesday's victory, said that Mourinho had worked out various gameplans for different scenarios. If Chelsea have surprisingly lost at Aston Villa and Crystal Palace in recent weeks, their victory at Manchester City earlier in the year, when they took the league ground record at the Etihad Stadium, was a masterclass in tailoring tactics to deal with a specific opponent.
There are few examples of Mourinho the coach in rugby union. Ireland's Joe Schmidt is one and how , even allowing for the home side's physical superiority. Leinster's gameplan was rigid and, if they were handicapped by their hooker Richardt Strauss's bad throwing day, they were surprisingly unable to exploit the numerous errors made by Toulon who, despite the fine day, tended to handle the ball as if expecting to receive an electric shock.
Saracens have . They secured the only away victory in the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup and, if they played for all bar the opening few minutes with a man advantage following t, they did not merely try to as they would have done not so very long ago.
have nurtured an anti-establishment persona in the last few years, at times calculatingly contrary: no one likes us and we don't care. On the field, they have tried to cultivate a winning mentality and they based their game on an unyielding defence and minimal risk-taking.
Last season, their approach depended on who was at fly-half. When Charlie Hodgson played there, Saracens tended to score tries; when Owen Farrell wore 10, they tended to win on kicks: it was 27 October when they mustered a try when Farrell was the pivot.
There has been no such contrast this season, evidence not only of Farrell's greater maturity but also the more pragmatic approach they have developed under McCall. They can play it more than one way, willing to exploit an attacking back three: their two first-choice wings, Chris Ashton and David Strettle, have scored 27 tries between them this season in all competitions, 14 to the former who overtook the latter with two at Ravenhill.
A key to cracking Europe for Saracens will be tactical acumen, something they did not show too much of in . Their starting lineup that day was similar to last weekend: Duncan Taylor for Joel Tomkins was the only change behind, while at forward, there were four survivors.
Saracens will almost certainly have a home draw in the Premiership play-off semi-finals and if they overcome at Allianz Park on Sunday, they would have a minimum nine-point advantage over the Saints with three rounds to go, including a date with Worcester.
The match does not count for anywhere as much as it would have done in the days before the play-offs, although Northampton are in the sights of Leicester whose run of eight unbeaten league matches has taken them to third and lost to Sale and the Tigers in the last two rounds.
A turning point for Northampton was their victory at Saracens in the semi-final 11 months ago. Since then they have defeated their rivals three times, twice in the LV= Cup, and their best performance in the Premiership this season was arguably against Saracens at Franklin's Gardens last October on a day when both sides were missing their England internationals, while George North was with Wales.
The Saints had earlier won at Harlequins and drawn at Leicester which, together with the result at Saracens the previous May, which was their best sequence of results against their top four rivals in the Jim Mallinder era. Saracens, though, have not lost a Premiership match this season outside an international window, but they were doubled by Toulouse in the group stage.
Saracens have scored 53 tries in their 18 Premiership matches, securing eight winning bonus points. At the same stage last season, their tally was almost half that number, 28 and four bonus points, a figure inflated by 10 tries in three matches at their new ground in Hendon which, with its all-weather surface, was considered to be more conducive to attacking rugby.
They have not received that much in the way of credit for the way their game has evolved, not that they would want it any differently given the strength they have gained from perceiving those outside the club being against them. Their victory over Ulster was a case in point, to be expected considering they were playing against 14 men for virtually the whole match – and by more than two points.
They were hanging on at the end but, if not so very long ago they would have been expected to have used their man advantage by keeping the ball among the forwards and trying to grind down Ulster, they played with width and their points were made up of three tries and a conversion. They were not reliant on the boot of Farrell who, unusually, missed all except one of his seven kicks at goal.
They have become a more adroit side in the last year. If knew pretty much what to expect in the semi-final 12 months ago, Clermont Auvergne will have more to ponder over. It may be premature to be talking about awards but McCall is a clear candidate for coach of the year, even if Saracens are no more loved than Mourinho.
• This is an extract from The Breakdown, the Guardian's weekly rugby union email.