'Gutted' Saracens in last chance saloon

Saracens' Owen Farrell (C) passes the ball during their European Rugby Union Champions Cup match against Clermont, at The Michelin Stadium in Clermont-Ferrand, on December 17, 2017

Saracens will be relying on their eight-strong England contingent to drag the title-holders out of a European Champions Cup hole at home to Northampton this weekend.

When coach Eddie Jones named his 35-man squad for England's opening Six Nations clash, a trip to Italy, he included eight Sarries, including five forwards -- and that despite first choice No.8 Billy Vunipola being injured.

Although Saracens are widely expected to beat Saints on Saturday, that may not be enough to keep alive their interest in this season's European competition.

Even a bonus-point success to match their 57-13 win in Northampton back in October might see them still fall short of the top three second-placed finishes that would keep them from missing out on the quarter-finals for the first time since 2011.

"We are gutted because we are now relying on other people. We are now not in control of it," said England hooker Jamie George.

"Obviously, we are in control of our performance, but we are hoping for stuff elsewhere, which is the most frustrating thing."

Top spot in Pool 2 will be decided in France where Clermont host Ospreys and Saracens will need the hosts to prevail to have any chance of progressing.

They currently sit third on 13 points, five behind Clermont and two off Ospreys and while Northampton are out of contention, they have shown an upturn in form over the last two weeks.

They had lost 12 of their previous 13 games but snatched a league win at home to Gloucester and then shocked Clermont last week.

"Northampton got a good result and they are going to be looking to get one over on us, having had two bad results against us already this season," said George, referring to the 55-24 hammering Sarries dished out to Saints on the opening day of the English Premiership campaign.

Saracens have made their own task tough by losing back-to-back games to Clermont and then drawing away to Ospreys last week.

- 'Worst performance' -

Their 46-14 thumping at home by the French champions last month still rankles.

"That was nowhere near good enough. That was the worst performance I have been involved in in a Saracens shirt," added George.

If Ospreys win in France and Clermont pick up a bonus point of any kind, then Sarries' two-year reign will be over.

The team looking most likely to succeed them is Ireland's Leinster, the only unbeaten team left in the competition and the only ones to have already booked a quarter-final berth.

Even if the three-time winners lose away to Montpellier, who still retain a similar chance of progressing to Sarries, Leinster will have a home quarter-final.

Ireland fly-half Jonny Sexton has been given the all-clear to play in the south of France despite taking a knock to the head while scoring a try in last week's 55-19 demolition of Glasgow.

The Scots are out of the running and host English champions Exeter in their final Pool 3 game.

Exeter need to win to have any chance of progressing as they currently hold the worst record of the five second-placed teams.

Irish teams are well set to make their presence felt in the knock-out rounds as Ulster top Pool 1 ahead of their trip to Wasps while Munster are in control of Pool 4 with Castres their visitors.

"Ireland are dominating Europe, their sides are going well," enthused Jones on Thursday.

"They have this central contracting system that allows them to have their players at their peak."

Leinster's third title in 2012 was the fifth by an Irish province in seven years but no side has even reached a final since.

Three-time champions Toulon face a trip to Scarlets with top spot in Pool 5 at stake for the winners.

No Welsh side has made the quarter-finals since Cardiff in 2011/12 -- when they were promptly dumped out 34-3 by Leinster.