If there was any doubt over Saracens qualifying for the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup, yesterday’s game dispelled it. The leaders of the Aviva Premiership have been given two bouts of indigestion by Toulouse in their pool programme but this lunchtime kick-off gave them only a surfeit of goodies.
As one of the best pool runners-up, they will have to travel away from Barnet for the knockout round in April and much may happen between now and then. For the moment, they and England will wait to assess Owen Farrell’s condition; the fly-half had been on the pitch as a replacement for only six minutes when he was led off it, clutching a towel to a cut streaming blood on his head.
There were no immediate concerns from the club management and, at that stage, Saracens were stretching away from their outclassed Irish visitors. Even the fight had left the Irish; in the first half there was some pushing and shoving when Nathan White, the Connacht prop, stamped on Brad Barritt and left for the sin bin, and an even more enthusiastic brawl involving both forwards and backs after Saracens scored their third try. Both captains were lectured.
For the first half-hour it was a competitive match; in the last half-hour it was a rout, Saracens scoring seven of their 11 tries in that period. Had Charlie Hodgson not left his kicking boots at home – he missed seven conversions and a penalty – the embarrassment for Connacht would have been even greater.
Mark McCall, the Saracens director of rugby, reckoned before the game that 17 points would be sufficient to see his side through, ahead of Northampton. “This performance has been coming for a long time now,” he said though he acknowledged that the two pool defeats by Toulouse acted as a reality check. “We want to be a top European side, we’re not at the moment,” he said. “The more experience we have against a side like Toulouse will allow us to crack on. I think we’re a top eight European side, we want to be in the top three.
“But with a six-day turnaround since Toulouse [where Saracens lost 21-11 in a match they had reasonable expectations of winning], to get that kind of response was very pleasing. We had a formidable back three today and Alex Goode was outstanding.”
Goode scored a magnificent individual try, dummying and swaying through half the Connacht team on an arcing 60-metre run; David Strettle scored three and Chris Ashton the first and last try but the game’s significance, so far as England and the forthcoming Six Nations is concerned, is strictly limited. Stuart Lancaster and his coaches will not make judgements based on an afternoon when Saracens literally ran away with the spoils.
Pat Lam, the former Samoa captain who now coaches Connacht, observed that all the teams left in Europe’s top eight are “big-budget” teams. When Connacht pulled off their splendid away victory over Toulouse in December, the difference in budgets was the €35million (£29m) available to the French club as opposed to the €3m million Connacht can spend. “Here Saracens had a team full of internationals, we had one [Dan Parks, the former Scotland fly-half who is now 35],” Lam said. “Saracens have a chance, they’re a big club, that’s what rugby is.”
As is often the case where one team is flogged unmercifully, the beaten team scored first. Parks kicked two penalties either side of a try by Ashton which required a bit of work by the wing to beat two defenders in a small space and though Goode prompted the first of Strettle’s tries, Connacht were hanging on until they lost White to the sin bin three minutes before half-time.
White could well have received a red card, given that there was little to choose between his footwork at a ruck and the offence which saw Ian Evans, the Wales lock, dismissed during the Leinster-Ospreys game on Friday evening. Certainly McCall believed that red would have fitted the crime, even though he was pleased that his players did not have a weakened side to beat throughout the whole of the second half.
White had scarcely departed when Saracens drove Schalk Brits over the line from a lineout won by Ernst Joubert. Before the Connacht prop returned, Saracens scored again, Goode running from his own 22 to link with Duncan Taylor and Strettle romped away for the bonus-point try.
The game as a contest was done and dusted, even if the scoreboard had a lot more work still to do. The first of Hodgson’s successful conversions was greeted with an ironic cheer (the fly-half managed to hit an upright as often as anything) but in other respects, Hodgson’s game was bang on the money as he found space for colleagues and placed his forwards in areas of the pitch where the likes of James Johnson and Jackson Wray could drive over the line.
Saracens: A Goode; C Ashton, D Taylor (C Wyles, 53), B Barritt, D Strettle; C Hodgson (O Farrell, 60-66), R Wigglesworth (N de Kock, 51); M Vunipola (R Barrington, 56), S Brits (J George, 51), M Stevens (J Johnston, 51), S Borthwick (captain), G Kruis (A Hargreaves, 59), B Vunipola, K Brown (J Wray, 64), E Joubert.
Connacht: G Duffy; F Carr (P O’Donohoe, 64), R Henshaw (D Leader, 59), E Griffin, M Healy; D Parks (J Carty, 51), K Marmion; B Wilkinson (D Buckley, 41), S Henry (J Harris Wright, 39), N White (R Ah You, 51), M Swift (M Kearney, 51), C Clarke (captain), A Browne, J Heenan (Ah You, 45-47; G Naoupu, 59), J Muldoon.
Referee: L Hodges (Wales).