Saracens stars are playing more rugby than their Aviva Premiership rivals at Harlequins, Leicester and Northampton

Chris Ashton (centre) and Alex Goode (right) have become England regulars (Picture: Action Images)

Chris Ashton (centre) and Alex Goode (right) have become England regulars (Picture: Action Images)

First published in Sport by

Saracens' most regular stars have played more rugby this season than their equivalents at any of the teams currently in the top four of the Aviva Premiership.

The Men in Black are consistently scrutinised for deploying a squad rotation system that shares out playing time in the hope that the squad will be fresher than their opponents come the business end of the season.

Top players are regularly left out and individuals are assigned detailed playing schedules well in advance.

But, far from being the most rested, statistics show the Men in Black's key figures have in fact spent more time on the pitch than any of their rivals since the start of this campaign.

And, ironically, it is the international calendar that's doing the damage.

Saracens have delighted in the way several players have broken into their international sides in the past year, but it is precisely those international commitments that could now undermine the team's ambitions.

When compared to the other sides currently in the top four - Harlequins, Northampton Saints and Leicester Tigers - Saracens' five most used players have played more minutes, including Heineken Cup, Premiership and international matches, than the equivalent players at their rivals.

Brad Barritt (1,113 minutes), Alex Goode (1,092), Steve Borthwick (1,066), Kelly Brown (1,048) and Chris Ashton (1,040) have collectively played 5,359 minutes so far this season for club and country.

That's 182 minutes more than Leicester, whose top five are the second hardest workers, with Geoff Parling (1,095), Tom Youngs (1,078) Manu Tuilagi (1,020) Thomas Waldrom (1,010) and Niki Goneva (974) racking up 5,177 minutes between them.

Meanwhile Harlequins' most industrious quintet have enjoyed 248 minutes more rest than Saracens, and Northampton even longer with 286 minutes.

At the current rate, if Saracens were to reach the Heineken Cup and Premiership finals, Barritt, Goode, Borthwick, Brown and Ashton alone will have collectively played six matches more than Leicester's five, over seven more than Harlequins' and nine more than Northampton's by the time they get there.

Ashton admits he's enjoyed the time-outs he's been given this season: "I'm used to playing every week and never getting a week off so it’s been quite nice to get a break every so often - it must have its advantages at the end of the season.

"Sometimes you get used to playing with people and the players around you and how they play but that will come with time, there’s not a massive risk with that."

Saracens have been criticised, unfairly at times, for lacking rhythm and creativity in their attacking play and the constantly changing teamsheet is almost certainly a contributing factor.

"The biggest drawback with rotation is that you do lose that consistency and that connectivity," coach Paul Gustard said.

"When you have a regular side playing week in week out you know subconsciously what each other does but having said that we do intermingle in training all the time and we do have the Storm side as well."

It's not all bad news for Mark McCall's men.

The statistics for the squad as a whole - where the international impact is more diluted - make more comfortable reading for Sarries fans.

The top 15 most used players this season sees Saracens still playing significantly more minutes than both Northampton and Leicester - but considerably less than Harlequins.

The likes of Will Fraser (sixth most played), Joel Tomkins (eighth most played) and Charlie Hodgson (tenth most played) are currently benefitting from being able to focus solely on their domestic duties.

And whilst some players may find their diaries busier in 2013 (Owen Farrell could establish himself as England's Six Nations fly-half and it's possible somebody like Fraser could catch Stuart Lancaster's eye as well), Sarries are able to boast arguably the deepest squad in the league.

There are also psychological benefits in extending the net of players who consider themselves part of the first team.

Gustard said: "If you pick a team purely on selection every week there's 15 who are really happy, eight who are pretty happy and ten who aren’t happy at all.

"We've got 32 guys who will play regularly for Saracens over the season and that helps squad harmony and it also gives people the chance to get away from the place to freshen up mentally and physically."

The Men in Black's big five will probably be rested over the next month but there is little to suggest that come the end of the season the statistics will look too different.

To sustain their challenges in the Premiership and the Heineken Cup, McCall will have to keep selecting his most important players whilst the Six Nations throws up another five fixtures across February and March.

Saracens can do little more than they are currently doing though.

The management team have utilised six more players this season than Northampton, four more than Leicester and only one less than Harlequins.

Without the international matches, the same five Sarries players would have played less than either Quins' or Northampton's by a significant distance.

Men in Black fans will be revelling in the current crop's impact on the international scene, but the question is at what cost will it be to Saracens come May?

The proof will be in the pudding.

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