With just less than half an hour left of the second leg of the Championship final, and with an aggregate lead of more than 80 points, the Saracens director of rugby, Mark McCall, saw fit to haul off his five British & Irish Lions. If it was good news for Warren Gatland, it was anything but for Ealing Trailfinders.
Saracens added another four tries without their star names on the field to rubber-stamp their return to the Premiership with another drubbing.
In that sense it was always going to be a formality. With a 60-point lead after the first leg, Saracens had already effectively secured promotion but mercy is not a word that they appear familiar with – perhaps because they feel none has been shown to them over the past 20 months – though the full-time whistle at least allowed the disgraced three-times European champions the chance to celebrate.
Their Lions were due to make their way to Jersey on Monday morning and though Saracens have always been remarkably short odds to return to the Premiership at the first time of asking, McCall and co evidently needed the cathartic release that came with the trophy celebrations on Sunday.
“We were in crisis mode around November 2019 and anything could have happened to the club,” said McCall. “But the unity and togetherness helped get us through. It’s been a long 18-20 months and we’ve looked forward to this day.”
Going through the motions was always unlikely, then, even before McCall decided to pick the same XV, complete with 12 internationals, that had won 60-0 seven days previous. For many reasons it was an understandable decision – this is Saracens’ last match of the season, one of the few occasions supporters have been able to attend. And sometimes, if there is the temptation to tinker too much, it is best not to tinker at all.
Maybe it was one last two-fingered salute to those who believe they should remain in purgatory. The former assistant Alex Sanderson summed it up well last week when he said: “People might think it’s easy to close ranks and have a siege mentality when the world hates you, but it’s not. I think everyone should get behind them. They’ve done their time.”
Another unrelenting performance with all of Saracens’ power on show would certainly have sent a message to the sides they are set to jostle with at the top of the Premiership table next season too. The irony was that after failing to score for the entire 80 minutes last weekend, Ealing took the lead after 32 seconds here – awarded a penalty try when Jackson Wray was adjudged to have knocked the ball dead near his own try-line.
He was shown a yellow card for his troubles and Ealing, considerably more settled than last week, were level at 10-10 at the interval. Elliot Daly got Saracens’ second try just over a minute into the second half and Saracens moved swiftly through the gears thereafter romping to a 57-15 victory on the day.
“It’s been a strange old year,” said the captain, Owen Farrell. “We enjoyed coming back and getting together after not much game time at the start. There are loads of things to take from this experience. Some of the younger guys will benefit from it. And some of the more experienced lads too will grow from what has happened and improve.”
Mandatory rest periods mean that when Saracens begin next season back in the top flight they will be without their five Lions for a significant chunk of the start of the campaign but McCall will have the returning loanees Max Malins, Ben Earl and Alex Lozowski to call on, as well as a refreshed Billy Vunipola. He has been rested from England’s summer plans and having missed out on the Lions tour, he gets the summer off.
Manu Tuilagi, however, has been called up as one of seven players added to Eddie Jones’s squad from the losing Premiership semi-finalists. His club-mates Ben Curry, Bevan Rodd and Curtis Langdon have also been called up, as have Malins, Earl and Will Capon from Bristol. Ollie Sleightholme and George Furbank from Northampton have also been included in a 36-man squad.