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.
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.”