Saracens shake off the rust but slip up at Ealing in long-awaited return

Gerard Meagher at Trailfinders Sports Club
·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Observer</span>
Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Observer

Was this a psychological blow landed before these sides set about seeking promotion to the Premiership? Simply a chance for both teams to blow off the cobwebs having not played a competitive match for so long? Or a demonstration that perhaps the Premiership may want to think about expanding to 14 teams after all? Maybe the most significant thing about Ealing Trailfinders’ entertaining win over Saracens was that it was the only match taking place in England on Saturday.

Such are the times that we are living. As a result it put this match into the spotlight and, given the frantic finish, it did not disappoint as a spectacle.

Two second-half tries from the hooker Alun Walker ultimately proved enough for Ealing to eke out a notable victory and if Saracens are hardly going to linger on the disappointment of defeat, it is a feather in the cap for the Trailfinders nonetheless.

With all Premiership clubs putting their feet up, it was left to the two sides expected to contest the race to join them to take centre stage. It is a desperate shame they had to do so with no crowd, but they did have one notable spectator, in the form of Eddie Jones.

No doubt he was keeping a close eye on Billy Vunipola – making his first appearance since December and the only England international selected by Mark McCall – but Jones has developed an affinity for the ambitious Trailfinders in recent months. He often brought his England assistants with him to conduct sessions throughout last year – a means of keeping his eye in, feeding the coaching habit – and Ealing have welcomed him with open arms.

Eddie Jones, the England head coach, looks on during the match between Ealing Trailfinders and Saracens.
Eddie Jones, the England head coach, looks on during the match between Ealing Trailfinders and Saracens. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Observer

That aside, Ealing have had little to occupy themselves since their previous competition fixture last February. There has been the odd friendly fixture – notably beating Newcastle Falcons – but it had been 323 days since their last competitive match and the sense of anticipation was palpable.

It may be stretching things to call this a competitive fixture – a three‑team Trailfinders Challenge Cup competition designed as a warm-up towards the start of the truncated Championship – and there was a private agreement between both sides to ease their way in when it came to team selection. But clearly there was the opportunity to lay down a marker of sorts given Ealing and Saracens are the favourites to contest the Championship play-off final – should the league reach that stage.

That remains a considerable if, but perhaps more than that, this was a chance for Ealing to demonstrate they can cope with a side of Saracens’ calibre. Granted, McCall has a considerable amount of firepower to call on but there is a sense that Ealing’s promotion credentials are not always taken as seriously as they ought to be by those in the corridors of power. Maybe they will be now.

“We’ve beaten London Irish in a cup final, Newcastle a few weeks ago and Sarries is another step up,” said Ealing’s director of rugby, Ben Ward. “We want to be having those results consistently.

“That was our first competitive game in 11 months. We’re competitive, even this competition we want to win it, then we’ll look at the league and we want to win that.

“We’re starting show that we are narrowing the gap. Today is a decent statement, it’s not easy but we want to challenge ourselves and until we win the league we haven’t earned the right to go up.”

The scrum-half Craig Hampson was among their standout performers, as was the new South African signing Bobby de Wee in the second row. A well-taken try in the right corner from Angus Kernohan had given them a lead, slowly but surely chipped away at by Saracens penalties from Will Hooley.

Eventually Saracens went ahead with Elliott Obatoyinbo finishing off after a period of pressure. Vunipola was involved in the buildup but largely well shackled otherwise, Saracens relying on their other hulking forwards to gain the edge.

McCall was nonetheless satisfied with Vunipola’s showing, though it must be said the No 8 did knock on over the try-line in the second half.

“He was outstanding, genuinely, he has been brilliant with this young group all week,” said McCall. “He has been really positive with them.

“It is so hard for an international player to play in a game like this and not get frustrated at times, with your teammates, with the opposition.

“But I’m really pleased. Billy is just a great club man, he knows the importance of senior players and their influence on the younger players.”

A concerted period of pressure from Ealing at the end of the first half failed to yield any points and when Craig Willis made a straightforward penalty you sensed Saracens would turn the screw.

In the end, however, their discipline let them down and Ealing edged eight points ahead with two minutes to go. Saracens struck back but by then there was no way back with Ealing, if not basking in the glory, then very much content at their afternoon’s work.