Owen Farrell orchestrates Saracens romp against Northampton

Saracens 62-14 Northampton Saints

Farrell kicks 27 points to boost Saracens’ quarter-finals push

Saracens’ Owen Farrell is challenged by Northampton Saints’ Mitch Eadie and Tom Stephenson.






Saracens’ Owen Farrell is challenged by Northampton Saints’ Mitch Eadie and Tom Stephenson.
Photograph: Peter Cziborra/Action Images via Reuters

Saracens could not have asked for more in their pursuit of a place in the Champions Cup quarter-finals through the back door – Owen Farrell orchestrating yet another colossal thrashing of Northampton – but the two-times defending champions will anxiously await Sunday’s results to learn their fate.

This seven-try thumping – added to the Ospreys’ loss at Clermont – has ensured they finish second in Pool 2 on 18 points, but wins for Ulster, La Rochelle, Racing 92 and Munster in Sunday’s four matches would mean no Premiership clubs in the last eight for the first time, notwithstanding two seasons in the 1990s when they did not enter.

Saracens’ chances of progressing are better thanks to Exeter’s defeat earlier in the day – they need results in only one of the two pools, which climax on Sunday, to go their way – but elimination would mean they become the first defending champions to crash out in the pool stages since 2013. If they do go out, it will be the back-to-back defeats by Clermont – including the scarcely believable thrashing at home – at the end of Saracens’ run of seven consecutive losses that proved costly. They will, however, have gone out with a bang.

“It’s the first time we’ve been really relentless all season,” said the Saracens director of rugby, Mark McCall. “It shows us what we’re capable of. If we don’t qualify we don’t qualify but we’ll have a million regrets because we’re good enough to be in that company. We’ve shown that if we can get into knockout games, we’ll be tough to play against.”

Northampton, meanwhile, have conceded 174 points in their three matches against Saracens this season, on each occasion shipping more than 50. They may have started brightly, despite losing Courtney Lawes to illness, and they had little to play for but were powerless to stop Saracens running riot – Farrell ending up with 27 points.

After 35 minutes of a helter-skelter first half, Saracens had the try bonus point. They lost Liam Williams before kick-off after he felt stiffness following his comeback from a groin injury last weekend, and McCall confirmed he would need further assessment – which will concern Wales – while Chris Wyles also departed before the first quarter. But it was his replacement, Nathan Earle, who sparked the defending champions into life.

It has been a busy week for Earle – on Thursday he was named in England’s Six Nations squad and his summer move to Harlequins was confirmed 24 hours later – but he set about justifying the hype immediately. He had a major role in Saracens’ second and fourth tries – on both occasions blasting through Harry Mallinder, who was called up by Eddie Jones last week but endured a torrid afternoon.

It was not the best start by Saracens, not least because after six minutes they were 7-0 down after Northampton’s scrum-half Cobus Reinach snaffled the loose ball to dart over following an uncharacteristic fumble by Alex Goode. Saracens responded with a Farrell penalty before Mako Vunipola barrelled under the posts from close range.

Northampton had won their previous two matches since Alan Gaffney’s arrival and they took the lead again after Nafi Tuitavake was on hand to collect Michael Paterson’s excellent offload.

Saracens



Saracens’ Sean Maitland scores the fifth try against Northampton. Photograph: Peter Cziborra/Action Images via Reuters

But Saracens accelerated through the gears thereafter. Earle came on and it was his chase that earned his side a scrum deep in Northampton territory – the ball worked wide for Goode to finish in the right-hand corner. Farrell was purring at this stage and his delicious dummy gave him the space to tee up Marcelo Bosch for Saracens’ third try.

Northampton were reeling and Saracens had the fourth when Goode straightened, fed Earle, who stepped off the left and thundered infield before providing Richard Wigglesworth with a straightforward finish. Vincent Koch added another try from close range before the interval with Northampton’s Jamie Gibson sent to the sin-bin for good measure and the Saints 36-14 down at the break.

Mallinder was replaced at half-time but his counterpart Farrell was on target with two further penalties before Sean Maitland scored a try wonderful in its simplicity, finishing off in the right after a big shove from the forwards preceded a lovely passing move from left to right. Sione Vailanu, on debut, then picked up the ball from a scrum and rumbled over before Farrell converted and added another two penalties – Northampton again ground into dust by their Premiership rivals. “We were very passive in defence and allowed their forwards to dominate that contact area,” said Gaffney. “We just didn’t handle it at all.”

Quick guide

Team details

Saracens Goode; Maitland, Bosch (Lozowski 66), Barritt (capt), Wyles (Earle 18); Farrell, Wigglesworth (Spencer 56); Vunipola (Thompson-Stringer, 69), George (Tolofua 66), Koch (Longbottom 69, Isiekwe, Kruis, Itoje (Skelton 66), Clark, Burger (Vailanu 60) 
Tries Vunipola, Goode, Bosch, Wigglesworth, Koch, Maitland, Vailanu Cons Farrell 6 Pens Farrell 5 

Northampton Foden; Pisi, Horne, Stephenson (North 56), Tuitavake; Mallinder (Myler ht), Reinach (Mitchell 62); Ma’afu (Van Wyk 62), Hartley (capt), Brookes (Hill 62), Paterson, Day (Ludlam 56), Ribbans, Gibson, Eadie (Marshall 66) 
Tries Reinach, Tuitavake Cons Mallinder 2 Sin-bin Gibson 40 

Referee Mathieu Raynal (Fra) 

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Premiership’s faltering form in Europe could spell trouble for England | Robert Kitson

Amid all the myriad European pool permutations and head-scratching arithmetic it can be easy to lose sight of the bigger picture out on the wintry fields. This has been a Champions Cup season of vivid, gripping contrasts in which the Pro14 sides are teaching their wealthy English and French league counterparts an increasing lesson in humility.

Even if the Premiership sides, in particular, stage a last-gasp resurrection they are already scrabbling for quarter-final crumbs. It could be that England has only one representative – or possibly none – in a last eight that could contain five Pro14 sides. Two years ago there were five Premiership quarter‑finalists and none at all from the then Pro12. The pendulum has swung.

While Exeter and Saracens can still secure an away quarter-final if they win their final pool fixtures against Glasgow and Northampton respectively, they are battling a continental tide that has swept away Saints, Harlequins and Leicester.

Barring a late reprieve, Bath and Wasps are probably heading the same way. If the English decline is entirely a coincidence it is a striking one.

Anyone who watched the Scarlets paint the Recreation Ground red on Friday night will certainly suspect otherwise. Both with ball in hand and around the breakdown, the Welsh region made Bath – a Premiership top-six side, albeit reliably inconsistent – look plodding and mediocre. At scrum‑half Gareth Davies looked every inch a top-class nine, the Irish lock Tadhg Beirne and his second-row partner David Bulbring were colossal and Rhys Patchell and Hadleigh Parkes gave the national selectors a monumental nudge.

The sureness of the handling, the accuracy of the passing and offloading, the support running and defensive steel were also a huge tribute to the coaching of Wayne Pivac, Stephen Jones and Byron Hayward, all of whom must be rising up the queue to take control of Wales when Warren Gatland and his current team step aside. If Gatland’s squad perform half as fluently as the elusive Scarlets in the upcoming Six Nations they will generate a whole lot of love.

It would also further query the received wisdom that European form and Six Nations success are two different things. That cosy assumption is beginning to feel outdated; how can, say, Ireland’s national management be anything other than upbeat when their three competing provinces are so competitive in the Champions Cup and Leinster are positively rampant? Is it entirely a fluke England have won the last two Six Nations titles in the same years that Saracens have scooped successive European crowns?

Which begs the next big question: might the Premiership’s faltering form in Europe and the rising confidence of the Pro14’s leading lights spell trouble for England and Eddie Jones over the next two months? Even if Billy Vunipola recovers swiftly from his fractured forearm, Jones’s side are going to encounter a revitalised bunch of opponents heartened by what they have seen in Europe of late. Even the Europe-conquering Saracens have not won in Wales on their last two visits, while the only English clubs to score a cross-border win away in this season’s Champions Cup have been Exeter in Montpellier and Bath in a deluge in Llanelli.

Munster’s Irish scrum half Conor Murray, right



Munster’s Conor Murray (right) has played in only five Pro14 games this season. Photograph: Christophe Simon/AFP/Getty Images

Privately, leading Premiership coaches continue to argue the relentless nature of their league exacts a mental toll that makes it harder for their teams to get up consistently even for big Europe dates. One illustration: Munster’s outstanding Lions scrum-half Conor Murray has played only five Pro14 games this season while his English counterpart Ben Youngs has already started twice as many Premiership fixtures for Leicester.

The all-consuming nature of England’s training camps, as Jones seeks to drive his squad ever onwards, has also clearly made it tough for certain players to satisfy two masters, with the threat of relegation a constricting factor for some. There is a big difference between being battle-hardened and overplayed, and too many English players still operate on the wrong side of that line.

At the same time, though, there is no disputing the increasing quality of the coaching in the Pro14. Pivac, Jones, Dave Rennie, Stuart Lancaster, Rassie Erasmus, Johann van Graan, Bernard Jackman, Richard Cockerill: all have coached in more than one country and their desire to outwit each other is raising standards across the board.

All of which leaves the Premiership trying to polish something potentially rather nasty, despite Northampton’s brave win against an injury-wracked Clermont and Harlequins’ late showstopper against Wasps. Dai Young’s side will need a bonus-point victory – and deny Ulster a losing bonus point – in Coventry next Sunday to remain mathematically afloat, while Bath’s fate is in others’ hands, even if they win big in Italy against Benetton on Saturday.

Exeter may well also require a bonus-point success in Glasgow, even if their six-try demolition of the French league leaders Montpellier on Saturday again underlined their quality in adversity.

Saracens, meanwhile, could still be stranded even if they conclude with another points landslide against their recent whipping boys Northampton. An Ospreys win in Clermont will slam the door whatever happens.

In that event the English will be staring at their leanest season in Europe since 2011-12, when Saracens were the only Premiership representatives in the last eight and ended up losing 22-3 at home to Clermont. The only previous time England have failed to supply a single quarter-finalist was in 1999, the year they boycotted the competition entirely. John Pullin’s famous line after England’s defeat by Ireland in Dublin in 1973 – “We may not be much good but at least we turn up” – may soon have to be revisited.