Saracens bury relegation woes to keep Euro dream alive
CHAMPIONS CUP REPORT: Defending champions Saracens overcame a suspected broken arm for Billy Vunipola and 43 minutes with 14 men to notch up a drama-filled 27-24 victory over Racing 92 on Sunday to keep their European Champions Cup hopes alive.
Mark McCall’s side, who accepted Saturday that they would be relegated from the English Premiership to the second-tier Championship at the end of the season for salary cap breaches, failed to bag a winning bonus point, but their qualification for the play-offs was secured with Gloucester’s defeat at Toulouse.
McCall said pre-match that the promised relegation had at least given the club “clarity on their future”. On the pitch, the star-studded side stepped up despite the intentions of a Racing side that rarely threatened with ball in hand but which snatched every opportunity that came their way.
“Amazing!” said Saracens’ back-rower and man-of-the-match Ben Earl. “We knew we had to do our talking on the pitch today.
“The experienced heads in the changing rooms spoke a lot about our plan.
“With what’s gone on this week, our focus was just Europe, to win something, the best competition in the world arguably.”
Saracens enjoyed a whirlwind forward-driven start, ever-present lock Maro Itoje piling over for a try in under two minutes, England skipper Owen Farrell hitting the simple conversion.
But the home outfit suffered a blow with England No.8 Vunipola taken off with a suspected broken forearm – a third of his career – after just six minutes, giving Eddie Jones a headache as he prepares to name England’s Six Nations squad on Monday.
Billy’s propping brother Mako Vunipola span off the back of an attacking line-out maul for a try shortly after, Farrell again converting.
Against the run of play, however, Racing fired back with two opportunistic tries either side of a Farrell penalty.
Firstly, Fiji-born France centre Virimi Vakatawa latched on to a loose ball to sprint in unmolested for a soft try, Finn Russell converting to keep the Parisians in the contest.
Then Farrell was guilty of gifting Louis Dupichot an intercept try as he sought to go wide, Teddy Iribaren kicking the extras.
In-form Vakatawa crossed for his second, and Racing’s third, on the half-hour mark, cutting through an unravelling defence after a great Russell break.
Saracens suffered another hammer blow on the stroke of half-time when giant Australian lock Will Skelton was red carded for a high, no-arms tackle on Racing fullback Brice Dulin.
Iribaren extended Racing’s lead early in the second period with a long-range penalty, but Sarries weren’t done.
Duncan Taylor offloaded to Earl who accelerated down the line and popped the ball inside to Itoje for a fine try, Farrell converting to make it 24 points apiece.
With just 11 minutes to play, Racing’s South African-born flank saw yellow for a needless late tackle on Farrell, but Eliot Daly sent his penalty effort wide.
Farrell had the final word, booting a penalty after Racing captain Henry Chavancy drifted offside to make sure the defending champions kept in the hunt.
On Saturday, four-time champions Leinster assured themselves of top seeding in the quarters after making it six out of six for an unassailable 28 points to top Pool One with an 18-0 win over Treviso.
Also through as pool winners are the French trio of Clermont, Racing and Toulouse, and Exeter. Ulster made sure of one of the three best second-placed teams with a 22-15 win over Bath, with Saracens, Northampton and Gloucester vying for the other two spots.
Tries: Itoje 2, M Vunipola
Cons: Farrell 3
Pens: Farrell 2
For Racing 92:
Tries: Vakatawa 2, Dupichot
Cons: Russell, Iribaren 2
Red card: Will Skelton (Saracens, 39)
Yellow cards: Teddy Iribaren (Racing 92, 10); Bernard Le Roux (Racing 92, 68)
Saracens: 15 Elliot Daly, 14 Sean Maitland, 13 Duncan Taylor, 12 Brad Barritt (captain), 11 Roti Segun, 10 Owen Farrell, 9 Ben Spencer, 8 Billy Vunipola, 7 Ben Earl, 6 Jackson Wray,5 George Kruis, 4 Maro Itoje, 3 Vincent Koch, 2 Jamie George, 1 Mako Vunipola.
Replacements: 16 Jack Singleton , 17 Richard Barrington, 18 Titi Lamositele, 19 Will Skelton, 20 Calum Clark, 21 Richard Wigglesworth, 22 Alex Lozowski, 23 Alex Lewington.
Racing 92: 15 Brice Dulin, 14 Louis Dupichot, 13 Virimi Vakatawa, 12 Henry Chavancy (captain), 11 Juan Imhoff, 10 Finn Russell, 9 Teddy Iribaren, 8 Yoan Tanga, 7 Bernard Le Roux, 6 Wenceslas Lauret, 5 Boris Palu, 4 Donnacha Ryan, 3 Cedate Gomes Sa, 2 Teddy Baubigny, 1 Eddy Ben Arous.
Replacements: 16 Kevin Le Guen, 17 Hassane Kolingar, 18 Ali Oz, 19 Fabien Sanconnie, 20 Baptiste Chouzenoux, 21 Maxime Machenaud, 22 Francois Trinh-Duc, 23 Olivier Klemenczak.
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
Assistant referees: Ben Whitehouse (Wales), Wayne Davies (Wales)
TMO: Ian Davies (Wales)