Harlequins had promised not to die wondering in this Premiership semi-final but long before the end they were spent and suffering. Mike Brown, their England full-back limped off with a hamstring twinge during the last quarter but has time to recover for the First Test in New Zealand on 7 June; Danny Care, his club-and-country colleague at scrum-half, played most of the match with strapping to his left ankle.
Saracens, with England’s fly-half Owen Farrell orchestrating some fine and intelligent rugby, extended the stunning domination they have enjoyed over their London rivals in recent years, and the self-styled wolf pack will enter the season’s final fortnight slavering at the promise of the European club game’s greatest bounty.
Farrell’s goal-kicking stood up reasonably well after five weeks’ rest from using the tee due to a foot injury and his 40-metre effort in the 74th minute would have signalled joy unconfined but for the concern over Saracens’ captain Steve Borthwick. The stalwart lock took the field wreathed in sentiment on his last home appearance before retiring after six years at the club, holding his toddler son Hunter high; when he left it to a standing ovation, Borthwick slammed a pack of ice on his shoulder and was fretting about his season possibly being over rather than happily plotting for next Saturday’s Heineken Cup final against Toulon in Cardiff, and the Premiership final a week later when Northampton Saints will be the opposition at Twickenham.
There was justice in this result and Friday’s when Northampton edged Leicester out as the two highest placed clubs made it through. Harlequins, who finished 20 points behind Saracens but were on a roll after five straight wins, played a tremendously quick game to attempt to steer clear of Jacques Burger and the notorious Saracens gang tackles. Way too soon, they faded in body and mind. Many of Saracens’ opponents do.
“The squad’s really confident at the moment,” said Mark McCall, Saracens’ director of rugby. “We’ve got some demons from semi-finals – Toulon and Northampton last year – and we’ve come a long way in 12 months but we’re under no illusions: we’ve got two unbelievable tough matches coming up.” The atmosphere was colourful and loud but these pressurised matches also come with chicanery and borderline refereeing decisions guaranteed.
Unwisely, there are legions of hyped-up coaching and physio staff at the side of the field, and some were pushing and shoving with Care as the players came off for half-time, after Saracens’ Chris Ashton – who would later unleash a lavish ‘Ash Splash’ to celebrate the match-settling try – appeared to have shouted, to try and put Nick Evans off his successful conversion of the try by Brown that had put Quins 17-11 up.
Conor O’Shea, Quins’ director of rugby briefly noted the irony of the words “honesty” and “humility” emblazoned around the stadium but the Irishman emphasised: “The best club in England, along with Northampton, are into the final.”
Though Kyle Sinckler, Quins’ rapidly improving tighthead prop, was unscathed after skipping into Schalk Brits and being flipped head over heels, Saracens had two men in the sin bin by the 30th minute: Marcelo Bosch for tip-tackling Evans and Matt Stevens for a deliberate knock-on. Harlequins punished the 13 men – Ugo Monye collected his 49th career league try from Evans’ looped pass for a 10-6 lead – but Saracens brilliantly bucked the odds with a score of their own. Billy Vunipola’s burst from a scrum stretched Quins on the left, Ashton raided back inside and an overlap was created for the flanker Kelly Brown to sprint past the Quins lock Charlie Matthews.
A sign of Quins already straining was Luke Wallace clumsily moving offside at a line-out but the mighty Bosch could not quite land the 55-metre kick. Then Sarries offered up some hope: Brad Barritt – a crucial Saracens absentee when Northampton won last season’s semi-final here – lost the ball in Tim Molenaar’s tackle, Chris Robshaw hacked on and Brown the full-back scored.
It all added to Evans’ sixth-minute penalty for Quins followed by two for Farrell either side of a miss. Farrell missed from medium range three minutes into the second half. Bosch was off target again too. But you could sense Saracens’ inner belief in a 10th win in the last 11 of these derbies, while injuries knocked Quins out of shape.
Farrell’s penalty on 55 minutes made it 21-17 and the advantage was pressed home by Ashton in the 62nd minute on the end of sumptuous interpassing between Richard Wigglesworth, Kelly Brown and Barritt. It is a style that is winning over new admirers. Trophies too? Saracens, Premiership champions just once, in 2011, will find out soon enough if they can emulate the double done by Leicester in 2001 and 2002 and Wasps in 2004.
Saracens: A Goode; C Ashton, M Bosch, B Barritt, D Strettle (C Wyles 59); O Farrell (C Hodgson 74), N de Kock (R Wigglesworth 52); M Vunipola (R Barrington 67), S Brits (J George 74), M Stevens (J Johnston 66), S Borthwick (capt, E Sheriff 69), A Hargreaves, K Brown, J Burger (Johnston 34-42, J Wray 60), B Vunipola.
Harlequins: M Brown (K Dickson 67); T Williams (S Smith 59), T Molenaar (B Botica 60), J Turner-Hall, U Monye (R Buchanan 67); N Evans, D Care; J Marler (M Lambert 74), D Ward, K Sinckler (W Collier 65), C Matthews (N Kennedy 74), G Robson, L Wallace (T Guest 59), C Robshaw (capt), N Easter.
Referee: Wayne Barnes (London).
Bristol fashion comeback
Bristol staged a second-half fightback to overcome Rotherham 22-11 at Abbeydale in front of a crowd of 3,267 and book their place in the two-legged Greene King IPA Championship final, where they will face either London Welsh or Leeds Carnegie. Trailing by eight at the break and despite being reduced to 14 men after Marco Mama's yellow card, the visitors notched 19 unanswered points to run out comfortable winners in the end.
Ben Mosses touched down early in the second period, while Nicky Robinson struck four successful penalties. Robinson had earlier kicked Bristol into a sixth-minute lead with a simple penalty, but Juan Pablo Socino levelled from the angle for Rotherham, Michael Keating scrambled over in the corner for an unconverted try and Socino slotted another penalty to give the Titans an 11-3 lead at half-time.