Saracens imperious in crushing Wembley win over Harlequins

Michael Aylwin at Wembley
The Guardian
<span class="element-image__caption">Chris Ashton beats Mike Brown to score Saracens’ first try in their 40-19 victory against Harlequins at Wembley.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Matt Lewis/The FA via Getty Images</span>
Chris Ashton beats Mike Brown to score Saracens’ first try in their 40-19 victory against Harlequins at Wembley. Photograph: Matt Lewis/The FA via Getty Images

They look, as ever, like men on a mission. The soundings-out of the first seven months of a brutal season are over; now Saracens mean business. Harlequins, with plenty to play for, were unable to make so much as a dent in their opponents’ composure at a vibrant, colourful Wembley.

The only blemish on Saracens’ afternoon was a knock to the knee of Mako Vunipola, prompting his withdrawal early in the second half. Mark McCall described his removal as a precaution, and the England prop seemed happy enough as he joined his team-mates taking in the applause at the end of the game.

Meanwhile, Quins’ ambitions for the top four are effectively over – just the top six for them now – but Saracens keep up the pressure on Wasps and Exeter. Who would bet against them claiming a home semi-final – or against them winning the whole thing? Here they were just too aggressive, too precise for Quins. Having comfortably held out against a wave of attacks for most of the second half, they even turned it on in the last 10 minutes to claim the two further tries they needed for the bonus point. It almost looked as if that had been the plan all along.

They really ought to have been out of sight by half-time. Their overpowering aggression came as natural as breath. Only sightings of that rarest of phenomena, the Alex Goode mistake, kept Quins in it. A couple of dodgy passes in the space of two first-half minutes cost each of his wingers a likely try. But by then he had successfully combined with one of them for their first.

From a lineout, some lovely handling in midfield had released him on the outside, and his chip to the line turned Mike Brown. With Chris Ashton breathing hard down his neck, the England full-back could only bat the ball back towards his own line, where Ashton finished one of the simpler tries of his career. Thus Quins’ early penalty had been overturned at the end of the first quarter, and Saracens were in the mood.

Another attacking lineout was won at the tail by Maro Itoje. A Sarries drive splintered the Quins defence, and Michael Rhodes was able to usher Schalk Brits to the line for a 14-3 lead. Quins did manage to reduce the arrears with two quickfire Nick Evans penalties, but they came in spite of the relentless hammering of the “home” side. Then, when Goode bounced the second of those loose passes into touch, Mat Luamanu was caught offside for Owen Farrell to establish a 17-9 lead at the break.

Quins had virtually all the possession for most of the second half, but the impression remained that it was Saracens in charge, their levels of aggression in defence never letting up. Every forlorn attack went the same way, usually with a Quins spill and a smart Saracens clearance to emphasise the contrasting levels of precision. An Evans penalty was sandwiched by two from Farrell in the third quarter, and when the latter’s fourth went over with 10 minutes to go the hopelessness of Quins’ situation was merely confirmed.

With the win secured, Saracens decided it was time for the bonus point. Itoje stole a Quins lineout, the ball went right, then with commendable speed and accuracy back left, where Rhodes galloped through a fractured defence, the flanker-cum-lock dummying like a full-back to rub it in.

In the 75th minute, Quins finally breached the meanest defence in the league with a well-worked try from a lineout by James Horwill. But Saracens saved the best for the bonus-point try two minutes from time, a symphony of offloads including an assist from Rhodes, sending Goode over in imperious fashion. Be warned everyone else. Imperious is the word.

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