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Saracens clinch semi-final spot despite eight minutes with 13 players

By Liam Heagney
Saracens' Rotimi Segun celebrates his second half try at Ashton Gate (Photo by Ryan Hiscott/Getty Images)

This Gallagher Premiership has been quite the entertaining caper since its post-Guinness Six Nations resumption, the seven-way bottleneck for the four play-off spots giving an added meaning to so many matches.

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Ashton Gate on Saturday afternoon was in keeping with this must-watch pattern, with two in-form title contenders putting their recent hot steaks on the line.

Something had to dramatically give and it did, the bragging rights emphatically going the way of now semi-final qualified Saracens on a 41-20 scoreline even though they had an eight-minute second-half period reduced to 13 players due to the quick-succession sin binnings of Maro Itoje and Ben Earl.

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Coming into this round 17 litmus test, hosts Bristol had been transformed, Pat Lam finally managing to relocate the elusive ‘Lamball’, the swashbuckling, attack-from-anywhere rugby that went missing following their spectacular 2021 semi-final crash versus Harlequins. Six wins and the mantle as the league’s leading try-scorers had them flying in 2024.

Meanwhile, Saracens had been as good as the warning issued by Mark McCall at Leicester when Saracens were beaten in the league in early January.

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Bristol
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Saracens
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The defending champions arrived into this encounter on the back of four wins in five, two either side of the end-of-March loss to Northampton However, with Bath and Sale both chalking up Friday night Ws, the second place the Londoners occupied before this penultimate round of matches started had become fourth.

The pressure was on the visitors to get back up the table, especially given that Bristol were fifth, two points off, and in hot pursuit of McCall and co.

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On a scorcher of a day in BS3 in front of 20,942, they demonstrated why they are defending champions – initially during a first-half where an early 3-13 deficit was defiantly transformed into a 23-13 interval lead with box-of-tricks Owen Farrell and the two-try Itoje to the fore, and then when two players short in the second period.

Although Lam was heard in his seat adjacent to the media box on eight minutes shouting “Stop kicking the f***ing ball away” when it was booted from his team’s half rather than carried towards the halfway line, Bristol looked promising for the opening quarter.

A fifth-minute Joe Batley try and eight points from AJ MacGinty kicks gave them a 10-point lead 22 minutes in.

However, just when they were on the cusp of escaping Siva Naulago’s deliberate knock-on yellow card without suffering any major damage, an Ellis Genge spill inside his team’s 22 ended with the slick-hands Itoje one-twoing with Juan Martin Gonzalez to score.

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That shattered the Bristol momentum and they could only watch in despair some minutes later when a Gonzalez lineout steal and a resulting monster 50:22 by Farrell from his own 22 ignited the pressure that produced Itoje’s second try off a pick and drive.

Add in two penalties and a conversion from Elliot Daly, who took over the kicking from the five-point Farrell who had a groin issue off the tee, and the half finished with Saracens very much on top and trooping off feeling cock of the Ashton Gate walk after Ben Earl tidied up a botched Bristol lineout overthrow when defending near his line.

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A home onslaught was only to be expected on the resumption and it came, multiple penalties upping the ante.

However, it initially ended with two Bristol players down injured – including MacGinty who required a HIA – and Naulago spilling near the line in a play that finished down the other end with Saracens bagging the 48th-minute turnover penalty scored by Daly after a poach from Gonzalez.

Itoje’s yellow for high-tackling Steven Luatua offered Bristol a 50th-minute lifeline that was further energised two minutes later when Earl also saw yellow for breakdown infringing.

A converted Harry Thacker maul try immediately followed and with the margin now just six points and plenty of time remaining on the twin sin-binning, the scene was set for the home side to dominate.

They abjectly didn’t. McCall shrewdly changed four of his pack in one go and Saracens soon had Daly on the kicking tee to punish an in-at-the side from Magnus Bradbury after a carry to the ruck from sub Eroni Mawi.

Other subs also chipped in, the pressure mounting with Theo McFarland sent on at the end of the Itoje card. Rotimi Segun was soon gleefully in at the corner for the unconverted try that pushed Saracens 34-20 clear.

Then, after the contest was restored to 15 versus 15, Gonzalez raced in unopposed to bag the bonus point try following a scintillating Lucio Cinti break. Daly added the extras to complete the 41-20 scoreline, the fizz in the Bristol crowd had now turned very flat and that was that.

This will be remembered as a champion effort from the champions just went it crucially mattered at the business end of the season. Through to the semi-finals, their next quest is to clinch a home semi when they host Sale next weekend.

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Tim 5 hours ago
'It’s a mental thing': Joe Schmidt on the Wallabies' flyhalf issues

Ben Donaldson had not played Super Rugby for the past eight weeks. Surely, he was playing Shute Shield for Randwick in that time to keep up the fitness…?? Eight weeks is a long break to be thrust in against a hungry skillful side like Georgia who deserve to be in the “7 Nations”. (Italy, Wales & Scotland v Georgia, can’t wait to see those ones). In the second test against Wales, Donaldson was put on for nine minutes. That was a mistake from the coaching team, who already knew he was starting the following week against Georgia. They should have put him on for 20-25 minutes, with Nick Whyte at halfback, and their combination from the Force would have flowed. Donaldsons first 20 minutes against Georgia was a shocker. However, well done to Joe Schmidt for keeping him out there because Donaldsons game improved as the rust came off, he was hammered a few times and handled it and he came into his groove. He made mistakes which they will all learn from. Ben Donaldson is a naturally talented rugby player who the Wallabies have to stick with at no.10. “Over the black Dot-aldson” is a good nick name for him with his awesome goal kicking style. It looks as though, off the boot, it’s going to hit the post. Then it just curves in beautifully every time, once he is in the groove. Donaldsons play this season for the Force, with Kurtley and co., was amazing to watch. Kurtley making one of the best comebacks in history. Donaldson has to be played consistently with Flash Gordon, Big LEN, McReight, Tupou, Kellaway. Oh, that’s right, there is Bell, Kerevi, Petaia (This list does go on a bit). Donaldson will be slotting these weapons into gaps, and into the clear, before we know it… One more thing which I will just assume is happening, just include JOC in the Wallabies squad. He is a rugby genius. His skills, wisdom and experience would be infectious around the Wallabies relatively inexperienced backline. JOC has mastered the art of all the positions long ago. JOC is so skilled and match fit atm taking THE REDS, at no.10, within a point of beating Wales. He can come off the bench and slot into the backline for the Wallabies at 10, 12, 13 or 15 at any stage of a test match. Ummm yeah, not bad… I am assuming that BIG JOE, Laurie “Gandalf” Fischer, Mike “The scrum Doctor” Cron and the team obviously already know all this. I am just a passionate rugby union supporter, and I am very happy that these guys are in charge of the coaching duties, what a coaching team the Wallabies have been blessed with. (Good luck with selecting the match day 23 when Will Skelton, who was playing amazing rugby for La Rochelle, and the boys return from Europe/Japan, Samu Kerevi…???) Now just imagine having Bernie Larkham, Toutai Kefu, Nathan Grey and John “Nobody” Eales as your coaching apprentices… GO AUSTRALIAN RUGBY… Doing a great job Phil Waugh, Joe Roff, Dan Herbert and the team. An amazing three years ahead. GO THE WALLABIES… GO THE WALLAROOS… GO THE 7’s in Paris…

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