‘Someone’s going to have a good Christmas, and someone isn’t’: Saracens v Bristol Bears
Christmas crackers are great. They add so much cheer to a festive table setting, the pulling of them is a delightful little game, and then there are all the goodies lurking within: the obligatory paper crowns, the total tat of the gifts, and the thrilled roars of dismay at the stunningly woeful punch lines. Unless you’re the Grinch, Christmas crackers are A Right Laugh.
They’re also, if you think about it, tiny acts of violence. The clenched fists around the crumpled cardboard, the rupturing of the garish casing, the festive debris spraying wildly, and the sharp crack of a tiny fuse, which inevitably scares someone’s dog beneath the tree. They’re entertaining and aesthetically pleasing, sure, but they’re – fundamentally – a battleground.
Cue Saracens versus Bristol Bears in Round Six of Premiership Women’s Rugby this Saturday.
It’s been branded ‘The Christmas Cracker’, and that’s perfect – because, just like its namesake, this ding dong seems guaranteed to feature all of the Christmassy combat, festive ferocity, and merry mercenary madness of the season.
Father Christmas, eat your heart out: you won’t deliver soundbites as divinely wrapped as those from the head coaches this week. ‘Someone’s going to have a good Christmas, and someone isn’t,’ Dave Ward said with both twinkle and thunder, before reflecting on the mouthwatering head-to-heads across the pitch – not least his and Alex Austerberry’s. There’s no love lost there…
‘It’s a healthy rivalry, which is all well and good. We don’t have to get on, and we like that in rugby – all the little subplots…’
‘This one popped out on the fixture list right away,’ the Saracens Head Coach mused, 100 miles to the east. ‘Especially given the timing. These are the occasions which get the fires burning. Hopefully we’re the ones entering Christmas Day full of festive spirit.’
Both history and current form make the hosts favourites. Since the league was revamped in 2017, Saracens have lost three times at the StoneX – twice to Harlequins, and once in that ‘what on earth just happened?’ December evening against Sean Lynn’s circus last year.
It’s a fortress: very few leave North London with anything other than A) a cold B) a 4G burn C) a Poppy Cleall-sized dent D) all of the above. They’re also a side Bristol struggle against.
Actually, that’s far too wishy washy. Put simply: Bears, who’ve taken every other scalp in the league, have never got the job done against Sarries – regardless of location.
Saracens are also sat at the top of the PWR (Yule) log – with a perfect 20 points from four outings – whilst Bears are third, having lost to Gloucester-Hartpury and Exeter in between compelling victories against Sharks, Lightning, and Trailfinders. The Wolfpack, who’ve finished four of the previous five seasons at the table’s summit, seem to have rediscovered their bite.
When we speak, Austerberry’s excitement about this group is palpable: there’s something a little bit different at Saracens this year, and they’re all the more dangerous for it. Between their Centre of Excellence graduates and new signings, their depth’s – somehow – grown again, but the real transformation, he believes, is cultural.
‘It feels like it did when I first walked in the door at Bramley Road years ago [during the club’s amateur era], because it’s about so much more than just the rugby and sessions with this group. I’m really happy with how they’ve come together, and everyone’s played their part in that.
‘They’re competitive as can be in the 15-on-15 stuff, of course, but even positional battles feel supportive this season – which only drives Saracens forward. They’re a genuinely tight group, with some real characters in there.’
Will Saturday be the sternest test of that cohesion, and of their systems, so far?
He’s quick to point out that every game is tough these days – they found themselves in a real arm wrestle against Tigers for 40 minutes last weekend, and he’s wary of what awaits them at Heywood Road in the New Year – but, on paper, ‘this is our toughest challenge so far, yes.’
Austerberry’s relishing it, though – and doesn’t miss a beat when I suggest there’s a lot to be taken from the game, then, however it ends. ‘People say you learn a lot from defeat… I prefer learning a lot from victory.’
What’s fun and inarguable is that Bears have more than a fighting chance. They’re a side whose performance ceiling is discussed a lot – revered tones are employed for sentences starting with ‘when they click’ and ‘on their day’ – but that’s because they really are both terrifying and beautiful in full flight.
Against Ealing last week, they made 15 offloads and 41 tackle breaks – 41! – whilst underlining their confidence, ball in hand, by kicking away just three per cent of possession.
Bristol don’t thwack opponents into submission: they carve them apart like tailor’s scissors through silk. What they need now is consistency, and to find that clinical edge against the very best in the competition. ‘We want to be sure,’ Ward says, ‘that – on our 80% day, we beat anyone in the league. On our 100% day? We wipe the floor with them. We’ve been nowhere near either of those marks yet.’
Their recruitment this summer will surely have gone some way towards plugging that gap between expectation and execution. Hannah Botterman, Holly Aitchison, Ellian Clarke, Lana Skeldon, Meryl Smith, and Evie Gallagher are just six of the newbies to have settled in Bear Country, whilst they continue to bring through local tyros and house global superstars.
Bristol’s team announcements make you want to buy a season ticket, and the headshots page on their website looks like limited edition game of ‘Guess Who?’ where all the characters are total ballers. *adds to Christmas list*.
Speaking of personnel – some of Saturday’s head-to-heads are mouth-watering. May Campbell versus Lark Atkin-Davies? Phwoar. Poppy Cleall versus Rownita Marston-Mulhearn? Titanic. A Bridger-Gregson midfield versus Reed-Murray? Stop it. Whether Austerberry opts for Zoe Harrison or the genuinely prodigious Amelia MacDougall at fly-half, that battle with Holly Aitchison is going to be sensational.
Plus, any opportunity to watch Sophie De Goede play (perhaps ‘complete’ is more apt) rugby is to be cherished. That I’ve not yet mentioned World Rugby’s Player of the Year Marlie Packer is testament to the fact that this is to rugby line-ups what Marks and Spencer’s ‘Extremely Chocolatey Biscuits’ tray is to festive selection boxes.
It’s lazy to say that Saracens only look to trample teams, and Bears to dance around them – the Women in Black are just as capable of scintillating rugby as the West Country outfit are of puréeing their opponents – but those are their default settings. If Bristol allow the three-time champions to march upfield and get their maul rumbling, then it’s only a matter of time before a beaming Campbell rises with the ball.
Similarly, if you give Reed or Murray even half a second to assess their options in traffic, they just will add another try assist to their tally. The question is: will these giants stick or twist when they collide? How will they look to negate and best one another? It’s both clash of styles and the meeting of two very versatile units. It should be brilliant.
Just adding fuel to the merrily roaring fire is the Bottchison Factor. The two Red Roses headed down the M4 this summer in one of the off-season’s headline transfers. Both sides have leaned into the familiarity, with a tongue-in-cheek promo filmed between the two squads, and the former Saracens stalwarts’ return to North London will give what’s expected to be a sizeable crowd something extra to holler about.
These two clubs are no strangers to leaning into things, mind – they’re right up there with the most creative and committed with their off-field offerings – so it’s no surprise that Saturday’s hosts are printing a women’s only match day programme for the first time, and have a variety of moments and markers planned to continue their celebration of 35 years of existence.
There’s also a tonne going on to entertain little ones pre-match, a half-time Christmas jumper competition, and a rumoured appearance from Father Christmas (plus reindeer) himself.
Tickets are a fiver, which is ludicrously good value given the genuinely world class athletes in action. If you can get down there – you’d be mad to miss it. This is not a sponsored post: I just think watching Sarah Bern do her thing is the perfect way to spend December 23rd, and the fact it’s also 1st versus 3rd in the best domestic league in the women’s game is a handy bonus.
‘Someone’s going to have a good Christmas, and someone isn’t,’ Ward observed, but this one feels pretty win-win to all those not closely involved.
Head along, or sit back on your sofas, and enjoy. The Christmas Cracker. It’s the most wonderful tussle of the year.
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