With three wins from their first four games, Saracens come into this intriguing Friday night battle with Bath in last place in the Gallagher Premiership. Thanks to the 35-point deduction they were hit with as a punishment for breaching the salary cap (and frankly not even being subtle about it), the London side are on -22 points, a full 26 behind Leicester. The “Race For Zero” at the Allianz Park club continues this evening in the West Country, with a visit to Bath.
Checking the form guide for this one can only offer confusion, as the hosts here have been absolutely massacred by Bristol in one local derby before pulling out a surprise win over Exeter in another. After being on the wrong end of Wasps’ only win of the season so far, they returned home to inflict a first loss on Northampton. If one thing is clear, it’s that Bath like their home comforts. Could this be a second defeat of the season for the reigning champions?
Big guns back for Sarries
The points deduction might have done a number on Saracens’ title hopes, but anyone backing them for relegation should probably hesitate given that they’ve already chipped 13 points away from the total and have won their last three matches. Additionally, the champions are about to get considerably stronger, as tonight they welcome back perhaps their three most influential players after a post-World Cup rest period. Maro Itoje and Billy Vunipola return to give serious heft to the back row, while Owen Farrell is back at fly-half.
This is an immediate levelling-up for Mark McCall’s side, who have lost only once, in a tight opening-day fixture with Northampton. With other England internationals such as Jamie George, Elliott Daly and Mako Vunipola also in situ, this is a sign that Sarries are seeking to hit hard tonight. Expect the champions to come out firing – and in situations where they want to make an impact, it frequently comes through B. Vunipola. He’s 19/2 with William Hill to score the game’s first try, and he will be bursting to get back into club action.
Hosts looking for consistency
Bath were certainly less affected by World Cup duty than tonight’s opponents – although England flanker Sam Underhill returns here having played in the European Champions Cup defeat by Ulster but missed last week’s loss at Harlequins. Fellow World Cup runner-up Anthony Watson is missing from tonight’s line-up through injury, and is replaced by Tom Homer. For the West Country side, the first four matches of the season have been a searching examination – featuring three opponents who have contested Premiership finals in the last few years, plus moneybags Bristol.
It’s been exceedingly hard to get a read on how equipped for a successful season they are, in truth. With their best XV available they’re certainly a tough opponent, but they don’t look elite. There’s plenty of toe on the wings in the shape of Ruaridh McConnachie and Semesa Rokodoguni, but a look at the competing packs makes it hard to give a compelling case for the hosts to win this one. Saracens are well-placed to control this game – and at Unibet, they are worth backing to open the scoring with one of many penalties they’re liable to draw. That’s priced at 9/4.
Saracens to have the upper hand, foot and any other extremity
In English rugby, the top of the line these days seems perpetually to be Saracens, Exeter, and one or two other sides whose identities change with the seasons. This particular campaign, it looks like it might be Northampton and Bristol. There’s little, even in their home form, to suggest it will be Bath. That makes it hard to back them for anything other than a defeat here. Saracens are not in a position to treat any game as anything other than a must-win until such time as they peel themselves off the bottom of the table – and that won’t be this side of Christmas – so expect them to tear into this game like there’s no tomorrow.
The bookies certainly seem to agree, and it’s largely pointless just backing the visitors to win as you’ll get very poor odds. It’s worth setting them a handicap instead, and at 888 you can back the champions to win by more than 13.5 points at odds of 59/50. With the hosts not looking their best, the idea that Sarries could win by two converted tries is far from fanciful. If you’re more confident than that, the 888 handicap market has a handy slider that you can use until you like the points spread and the odds; the same is true if you think that Bath have a surprise in them or simply that home advantage will have that big a part to play.
Bets of the Day
Saracens to win by >13.5 (888, 59/50); First Score Saracens Penalty (Unibet, 9/4); Billy Vunipola 1st try (William Hill, 19/2)