Saracens launch the defence of their European title without all their superstars but with Alex Lozowski warning: “We are the champions, we won’t just roll over”.
The Londoners, reeling from a 35-point penalty imposed for breaching the Premiership salary cap, have chosen to prioritise top flight survival over a fourth Champions Cup crown in five years.
That means omitting seven of their eight players who lined up for England in the World Cup final in Japan a fortnight ago.
Owen Farrell, Maro Itoje, Billy and Mako Vunipola, Jamie George, George Kruis and new signing Elliot Daly all miss tomorrow’s trip to Paris to face Racing 92.
The exception is scrum-half Ben Spencer, who played four minutes off the bench in the defeat by South Africa.
The Londoners’ decision to rest their best players comes ahead of a decision on whether to seek a review of the punishment which leaves them 26 points adrift at the foot of the table and £5.36 million the poorer.
Until that is made the future of all concerned remains in limbo but England centre Lozowski insists such uncertainty does not make Saracens easy beats.
“When you play for this rugby club, when you pull on a Saracens shirt, you are expected to win,” he said. “That’s the standard we set ourselves.
“So while this weekend’s team is very different to the one which started the final in May, we are still the champions. We are not just going to roll over and let whoever else come along and dominate us.”
Only Lozowski, Spencer, prop Titi Lamositele and lock Will Skelton remain from the side which came from behind to beat Leinster 20-10 at Newcastle’s St James Park in last season’s showpiece.
When asked earlier this week if the ruling against Sarries tarnished the club’s achievements, boss Mark McCall replied: “I think in lots of people’s eyes it will.”
Lozowski will leave such judgements to others, reasoning that “if you let yourself think about anything other than the game you’ve got to play you’re going to run into trouble.
“The news broke last week and we had to find a way to focus on a massive game at Gloucester. We got the win but had we not prepared as well as we did we would likely have been taken to the cleaners.
“It is the same this weekend. We are aware how good Racing are, what great players they have. Also how important it is for us to start well in Europe.
“We also saw what happened with other results last week. Comments were made by certain people from other teams and the results didn’t go their way. That shows where getting distracted with the wrong things gets you.”
Lozowski says the potential for job losses or players being sold off has not been discussed. But he insists to a man they are ready to fight.
“If the points deduction remains I’d fully expect all the boys to roll up their sleeves and show that real competitive spirit which exists amongst everyone at this club,” he said.
“It’s obviously not a position we would want to be in but we have to see good in every opportunity. It’s a chance to really show what we’re made of.”
EUROPEAN CHAMPIONS CUP POOL BY POOL GUIDE
This gets ‘pool of death’ status given Leinster are four-time champions, unbeaten in Pro-14 and tournament favourites – and are up against French Top 14 leaders Lyon and high-flying Northampton. Pity Treviso.
Player to watch: Cobus Reinach (Northampton).
Predicted pool winner: Leinster.
Captain: Alex Waller/Teimana Harrison
Coach: Chris Boyd
Best finish: Champions (2000)
Formguide: 2nd Prem (W3 L1)
Odds (William Hill): 50
Captain: Johnny Sexton
Coach: Leo Cullen
Best finish: Champions (2009-11-12-18)
Formguide: 1st Pro14 (Conf A: W6 L0)
Captain: Baptiste Couilloud/Felix Lambey
Coach: Pierre Mignoni
Best finish: Pool
Formguide: 1st Top14 (W8 L1)
Captain: Alberto Sgarbi
Coach: Kieran Crowley
Best finish: Pool
Formguide: 5th Pro14 (Conf B: W2 L4)
Given Saracens travails this is the season for Exeter to stand up and they should not have too much to fear in this pool, though Sale and Glasgow will defend their home turf ferociously. Difficult start at La Rochelle. Must bounce back from last week’s collapse against Bristol.
Player to watch: Stuart Hogg (Exeter).
Predicted pool winner: Exeter.
Captain: Jack Yeandle
Coach: Rob Baxter
Best finish: QF (2016)
Formguide: 6th Prem (W2 L2)
Captain: Jono Ross
Coach: Steve Diamond
Best finish: QF (2006)
Formguide: 4th Prem (W2 L2)
Captain: Callum Gibbins/Ryan Wilson
Coach: Dave Rennie
Best finish: QF (2017-19)
Formguide: 4th Pro14 (Conf A: W3 L3)
Captain: Romain Sazy
Coach: Jono Gibbes
Best finish: QF (2018)
Formguide: 9th Top14 (W4 L5)
A pool of ‘nearly’ teams, with Harlequins and Bath having long flattered to deceive. Ulster are overdue an extended run whilst surely Clermont, back after winning a third Challenge Cup last season, must soon deliver in the Champions Cup.
Player to watch: Damien Penaud (Clermont).
Predicted pool winner: Clermont.
Captain: Charlie Ewels
Coach: Stuart Hooper
Best finish: Champions (1998)
Formguide: 9th Prem (W2 L2)
Captain: Chris Robshaw
Coach: Paul Gustard
Best finish: QF (1997-98-2013)
Formguide: 10th Prem (W1 L3)
Captain: Morgan Parra
Coach: Frank Azema
Best finish: Runners-up (2013-15-17)
Formguide: 6th Top14 (W5 L4)
Captain: Iain Henderson
Coach: Dan MacFarland
Best finish: Champions (1999)
Formguide: 2nd Pro14 (Conf A: W4 L2)
Saracens are reigning champions, winners in three of the past four years, but a 35-point Premiership deduction means their focus is on domestic survival. They will still be competitive, but Munster and Racing will expect to take advantage.
Player to watch: Joey Carbery (Munster).
Predicted pool winner: Munster.
Captain: Brad Barritt
Coach: Mark McCall
Best finish: Champions (2016-17-19)
Formguide: 3rd Prem (W3 L1)
Captain: Peter O’Mahony
Coach: Johan van Graan
Best finish: Champions (2006-08)
Formguide: 1st Pro14 (Conf B: W5 L1)
Captain: Justin Tipuric
Coach: Allen Clarke
Best finish: QF (2008-09-10)
Formguide: 6th Pro14 (Conf A: W1 L5)
Captain: Henry Chavancy
Coach: Yannick Nyanga
Best finish: Runners-up (2016-18)
Formguide: 10th Top14 (W3 D1 L5)
French powerhouses Toulouse and Montpellier have made sluggish starts to the Top14 but are expected to come on strong in Europe. Gloucester are nobody’s fools these days but have their work cut out to qualify.
Player to watch: Ollie Thorley (Gloucester).
Predicted pool winner: Toulouse.
Captain: Willi Heinz
Coach: Johann Ackermann
Best finish: SF (2001)
Formguide: 5th Prem (W2 L2)
Captain: Jarrad Butler
Coach: Andy Friend
Best finish: Pool
Formguide: 4th Pro14 (Conf B: W4 L2)
Captain: Louis Picamoles
Coach: Vern Cotter
Best finish: QF (2013)
Formguide: 7th Top14 (W3 D2 L4)
Captain: Julien Marchand
Coach: Jerome Cazalbou
Best finish: Champions (1996-2003-05-10)
Formguide: 8th Top14 (W4 L5)