Lions Watch: Saracens player ratings vs Coventry
Mark McCall was spot on in late April when having a pop prior to the Lions squad announcement about how his frontline players at Saracens were “getting more rugby than the Welsh, Scottish and Irish – they are hardly playing at all”. Saracens had been zipping through the gears in the Championship in a fashion that did the majority of their stars no harm when it came to catching the eye of Warren Gatland.
Of the 16 different clubs to gain representation in the 37-strong Lions squad, the London club emerged with the biggest contingent as the five Saracens picks eclipsed the four each for last season’s double winners Exeter, repeat PRO14 champions Leinster and Welsh outfit Scarlets.
Since that announcement, Saracens have gotten on with their quest to win promotion back to the Gallagher Premiership following automatic relegation for repeated salary cap breaches and Saturday’s visit to take on Coventry in front of a sold-out crowd of 1,400 was the second start in five days for their Lions quintet of Elliot Daly, Owen Farrell, Mako Vunipola, Jamie George and Maro Itoje.
Butts Park Arena provided a very different backdrop to the surroundings Saracens are more used to on a day when the latest final of the Heineken Champions Cup, the tournament they won three times in four seasons between 2016 and 2019, was taking place just 110 miles away at Twickenham.
That is the type of showpiece occasion McCall will eventually want to qualify his team for but needs must at the moment and a victory in the English Midlands was needed to keep tabs with Championship leaders Ealing who beat Doncaster 38-15 earlier in the day to complete their regular season campaign ahead of next month’s two-leg playoff decider against Saracens.
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That Vallis Way win put Trailfinders ten points clear at the top of a table where Saracens had played two games less before kick-off in Coventry, but with third place Doncaster beaten, McCall’s charges knew when their 5pm match got underway that a win would guarantee their ticket to the promotion final.
Fielding a team showing five changes from the XV that defeated Ampthill 69-12, including a switch at tighthead for the suspended Vincent Koch, Saracens made light work of Coventry after running out of the tented dressing room, needing just 61 seconds to open the scoring. They led 33-0 at the break against an opposition weakened by a yellow card before going on to win 73-0 with an overall eleven-try effort. Here are the ratings for the five Saracens Lions who secured Gatland’s tour approval on May 6:
13. ELLIOT DALY – 8
Assistant Gregor Townsend oozed enthusiasm on Lions selection day when quizzed about why the regular England full-back had been selected as a tour midfielder, a position he hadn’t played in at Test level since 2016. Daly finished the opening half here with two tries, an easy run-in for the first after a pass from Nick Tompkins and then a blitzing break through the middle off first phase possession for the second which illustrated this eye for a gap that Townsend had talked about.
Daly would have had a hat-trick on 55 minutes but for the ball bobbling away from his grasp as he chased up his own kick but he only had to wait five more minutes, taking a pop from Farrell on the halfway line and blazing a trail to score. He was also called on to kick some left-footed penalties to touch down the right touchline but this wasn’t a competitive afternoon to get a real feel for the calibre of his defence in the 13 channel. Exited on 64 minutes for Dom Morris.
10. OWEN FARRELL – 7
Started shakily with the boot, his kick off bouncing harmlessly into touch and he then missed his first conversion attempt which was met with a cheer. Farrell drew the crowd’s attention every time he was involved, a pantomime villain role that culminated in a touchline argument with Louis Brown.
This aggressiveness had been seen in a better light minutes earlier with a meaty tackle near his team’s line with Coventry threatening a score. He continued to be a second-half focus. Sam Lewis, for instance, mowed him down on 49 minutes, but Farrell enjoyed himself and his ability to exploit a gap was seen in two assists, a lovely pass to Daly on halfway and then a grubber to the corner for Maitland. He finished nine from eleven off the kicking tee after playing the full game.
1. MAKO VUNIPOLA – 7
Won two early scrum penalties, one to gain the territory in the lead-up to the second try and the next to relieve pressure five metres out from his own line, set-piece dominance that continued as Saracens won four first-half penalties in that sector and didn’t relent in the second half either. Vunipola also enjoyed some handling involvement and lent his physicality when needed in a tidy enough 56-minute effort.
2. JAMIE GEORGE – 5
Scored off the back of a ninth-minute maul after he had initially thrown into the lineout but he endured some moments when he wasn’t flash on his toes in defence, either getting handed off or not adjusting his feet quick enough, and a lineout throw was also stolen around the half-hour mark. On the surface, he played like a player whose confidence isn’t yet fully restored following his Six Nations selection issues and yet he did plenty of trench work, such as giving Sean Reffell a latch to get over the line for his second try. Replaced on 56 minutes.
4. MARO ITOJE – 8
Bossed the maul, intimidated the Coventry lineout throw, was often on the latch to help out his ball carriers and was energetic in the tackle throughout. His lineout steal also got Saracens motoring in the second half when it looked like they might have lost their momentum, that possession leading to the Reffell score that took the handbrake off and unleashed a six-try second period for the Londoners. Caused a heart flutter after the hour, though, when he called for assistance. Thankfully, it wasn’t for an injury as his thigh grip needed replacing.
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