Saracens proved once again why they are favourites to retain the European Champions Cup this season as they recorded a brutal 38-13 victory over Glasgow Warriors to book their place in the semi-finals and maintain English interest in the competition, joining Leinster and Munster in the last four.
It’ll be the red province that Saracens face next, a trip to Dublin to meet the resurgent Munster side, while Leinster will play the winners of Clermont Auvergen and Toulon in France. But this was a timely reminder of why those teams should fear this Saracens side.
Chris Ashton scored twice for the second week in succession, tying a European record in the process, while Marcelo Bosch and Brad Barritt also crossed for the reigning English and European champions, with Glasgow’s response coming through the wing Lee Jones and a last-minute consolation from Ryan Wilson.
Last weekend, Mark McCall suggested that Warren Gatland, the British and Irish Lions head coach, should take Ashton to New Zealand this summer. This week, it was the wing himself who was sending that same message. He scored the only try of the first half, but the former England wing could have had a hat-trick before the break.
Ashton’s first chance came in just the third minute of the match as Sarries made a flying start. Combining with Alex Goode on the right, the full-back released Ashton in minimal space. He dived for the corner – something he would get used to throughout the afternoon – and it took a last-ditch tackle from opposite man Lee Jones to ensure he had a foot in touch before grounding the ball.
Two minutes late, Ashton figured again, coming into the back line off his wing as Saracens attacked left. His inclusion gave the home side the man advantage with that man being Sean Maitland. In similar fashion, the Scotland international went for the corner, but the defence again survived by the skin of their teeth as Maitland’s foot planted on the line. Instead, for all their early success, Saracens’s first points came through an Owen Farrell penalty when Glasgow edged offside in front of the posts.
It would take more than 10 minutes for Glasgow to get in the game, but when they did they at least left the Sarries half with points in the bag, Finn Russell punishing Saracens for not rolling away with a simple penalty. Farrell would add two more kicks at goal, along with missing a long range effort, while Warriors suffered the loss of co-captain Jonny Gray that left a large whole in their pack that Greg Peterson attempted to fill.
However, after repelling the first big Saracens assault, Glasgow would not escape the second unscathed, and again it would be Ashton the man at the heart of it. The scrum-half, Richard Wigglesworth, suckered in the Glasgow defence by flashing down the blindside before switching back to Farrell with room to run in to.
Goode took the ball on and surged into the Glasgow 22, and as Saracens came back right, Barritt sucked in two Warriors before releasing the ball in the tackle to Ashton, and the wing this time had a yard to work with. He stood up Jones before breaking outside him, and as Russell got back to cover, his weak challenge allowed Ashton to roll over the fly-half and ground the ball for the opening try just after the half an hour mark.
Ashton would have one more chance on the stroke of half-time, but when he again dived for the right corner his foot once again found contact with the whitewash before the ball was grounded.
Gregor Townsend, the Glasgow Warriors head coach that will leave the role to replace Vern Cotter with the Scotland national team this summer, had his biggest challenge yet on his hands at the break, given his side had not visited the Saracens 22 once. That would change within 10 minutes of the restart, and in quite some style too.
After play was stopped for Fraser Brown to receive treatment, Glasgow attacked from the edge of the Sarries 22 and Russell immediately chipped across field for Jones to run on to. With Saracens defending narrow, Jones took the ball uncompleted, stepped inside Goode and fended off a weak tackle from Ashton to go over. Russell pushed the conversion, but at least the lead was down to 14-8 and the reigning champions were in touching distance – or so they thought.
Saracens hit back emphatically, the replacement hooker Schalk Brits punishing Russell for a missed kick to touch by running the ball back more than 40 metres, and when he got his hands on the ball again, it was the South African who offloaded behind him to Bosch. The Argentine centre had work to do, but he exploded through a double tackle of Russell and Brown to go over for Sarries’ second try.
Now the reigning champions were hitting their stride, Farrell adding another three points to stretch the lead to 24-8, and after 20 minutes of persistent pressure, the floodgates eventually opened. Defending a 5m scrum, Glasgow were turned over and Saracens smelt blood. They attacked right, only for Ashton to be halted.
Moving back left, Brits again made a decisive burst through the heart of the defence before offloading above his head to replacement prop Vincent Koch. Sarries recycled, and Farrell released Ashton, who had Barritt unmarked outside him and the captain dived over unopposed.
The game was done, but Ashton still had time to make history as he capitalised from great footwork by Goode two minutes from time released the wing for his second try of the match and his 36th in Europe, equalling the all-time record that he know shares with Frenchman Vincent Clerc.
Glasgow at least had a consolation try to prove their fight, the flanker Ryan Wilson being driven over the line with the clock red, but they will wave farewell to Townsend as he heads for pastures new with the Pro12 play-offs also looking a step too far.
For Saracens, Munster in Dublin await.