That Saracens stretched their unbeaten European run to 20 matches was no surprise, yet no one expected an injury-ravaged Ospreys to push them so close in a 70-point thriller at Allianz Park on Saturday night.
It may be the nightmare slot of the weekend, but after last week’s victory for Exeter Chiefs set the bar at a high level, this encounter smashed through it with nine tries – five for Saracens and four for Ospreys – and a scoreline then sent the match right to the wire.
Saracens’ backs did the damage, with Chris Wyles, Liam Williams and the impressive replacement Nick Tompkins adding to a penalty try and Schalk Brits score, while the Welsh side replied with two tries from Dan Evans, one from Owen Watkins and a double-bonus-point-securing score on debut from Sam Cross.
The Ospreys were already without man of the moment Rhys Webb, whose ill-fated international career has been the talk of the week since the Welsh Rugby Union announced a change in the Senior Player Selection Policy, when the two sides were announced on Friday. Yet matters were made significantly worse for the visitors before kick-off as they lost not one but two international back-rows in Dan Lydiate and Justin Tipuric to back injuries, the first suffered on the morning of the game and the latter in the warm-up.
It meant a professional debut for Rio Olympics silver medallist Sam Cross on the openside with Bath loanee Guy Mercer at six, while prop Gareth Thomas was drafted onto the bench to cover the back-row. Hardly the ideal preparation for any team when visiting the reigning European champions, but by the way the Ospreys started the encounter you wouldn’t have known they were depleted at all.
As they so often do, Saracens struck first. Having seen Duncan Taylor go close only to be held up short by Wales wing Cory Allen and scrum-half Tom Habberfield, the ensuing scrum saw Owen Farrell miss out Taylor and feed full-back Alex Goode, who timed his pass perfectly to send Chris Wyles over for the try.
Farrell added the conversion, but it did not take long for the Ospreys to restore parity on the scoreboard. The incredibly impressive Evans was the beneficiary of an Allen offload off the turf, and the full-back galloped over just three minutes after going behind. Referee Marius Mitreas immediately called for a TMO review on the pass before Habberfield could attempt a drop-goal conversion, but the Welsh side were relieved when the thumbs up came from Stefano Penne and Dan Biggar levelled the scores with the retaken conversion.
The momentum lift kicked the Ospreys into life, and they snatched the lead a minute shy of the quarter mark. Strong indents into the Saracens defence put the visitors onto the 22m line, and a smart pivot move from prop Nicky Smith to Habberfield allowed the half-back to find Evans, who exposed a large gap between Mako Vunipola and Farrell to brush off the fly-half and score his second of the match.
A 40m Biggar penalty added to the conversion and suddenly the reigning champions were 10 points behind, but it did at least trigger a response from Mark McCall’s side. After losing Taylor to an ankle injury – again going close to scoring – flanker Calum Clark thought he had scored his second try for the club in the space of six days, only for the TMO to judge the ball grounded short. Farrell kicked the subsequent penalty with an offside advantage being played.
Still, Sarries looked like they would trail at the break, only for the talismanic Schalk Brits to start and finish a lovely move that started inside their own half. The hooker, starting in place of Jamie George, floated a flat pass to Liam Williams on the right wing and his chip ahead bounced kindly into the hands of Barritt. His offload to Williams put Saracens within five metres of the try line, and despite Farrell’s long miss pass being dropped backwards by Vunipola, he regathered before offloading in the tackle to send Brits over.
Farrell’s conversion ensured the two sides headed for the tunnel level, but Ospreys were far from done and looked certain to score their third try within four minutes of the restart. Turning down a kick at goal to go for the corner, the ball was worked wide via a quick-thinking tip-pass from Fonotia to Evans, with the full-back gathering out wide with no defence in front of him. What should have been his hat-trick try inexplicably went begging after he dropped the ball a full three strides after catching it, but there was relief in that a penalty advantage saw Biggar nudge Ospreys three points ahead.
After a dazzling first-half, Evans’ night would get worse. Just 10 minutes after spurning the chance to score having been moved to the left wing to accommodate Sam Davies, he was sent to the sin-bin for 10 minutes after deliberately knocking a Nick Tompkins pass forwards when Williams had the line at his mercy. Mitrea reviewed the incident and elected that not only was it deliberate, Evans was also the last defender, and duly awarded a penalty try to put Saracens back in front.
Just two minutes later, Saracens nearly bagged a fourth try, but Wyles was stopped inches short of the line and, isolated, turned over for the pressure-relieving penalty by Habberfield – also now on the wing due to Jeff Hassler’s failed head injury assessment. But the try would eventually come, and while it was the Welsh wing Williams who finished the score from 25 metres, the credit went to Tompkins whose Sonny Bill Williams-esque offload out the back of his hand in contact produced the free run-in.
Saracens pressed in search of a second consecutive bonus point, but within seconds of rushing the Ospreys defence inside the 22m, they were in retreat to their own posts. Farrell’s poor decision to try intercept a floated pass conceded 45 metres to James King, and from the very next phase inside the Saracens half, Davies’ neat inside-offload released centre Owen Watkins to cruise over beneath the posts to allow the simple conversion and just a two-point lead.
The free-flowing rugby on offer continued to produce points though, and smart thinking from replacement scrum-half Ben Spencer saw him snatch the ball off his opposite number Brendon Leonard, and after George was stopped short, quick ball allowed Jackson Wray to release Tompkins, who rounded James Hook and dived over for a deserved try, securing the bonus point in the process.
You’d have been forgiven for believing the match was done and dusted, but not by any measure. Turning down a kick at goal for a high tackle from more than 40 metres out, Biggar found touch just outside the Saracens five-metre line, and a first-phase move saw the fly-half whip a miss-pass out to Davies, who stepped inside the rushing Goode and fed openside flanker Cross – now on the wing – to go over for a try on his professional debut.
Saracens just held on to record take their unbeaten European run to 20 matches, but Cross’ try earned Ospreys two valuable bonus points that keeps their campaign alive ahead of back-to-back games against a chastened Northampton Saints, who suffered a 24-7 defeat at Clermont Auvergne earlier in the day.
Saracens: Goode; Williams, Taylor (Tompkins, 34), Barritt, Wyles; Farrell (Lozowski, 78), Wigglesworth (Spencer, 62); Vunipola (Barrington, 67), Brits (George, 47), Figallo (Koch, 50); Isiekwe (Skelton, 74), Kruis; Itoje, Clark (Burger, 57), Wray.
Ospreys: Evans; Hassler (Davies, 37), Fonotia (Hook, 67), Watkin, Allen (Leonard, 50); Biggar, Habberfield (Thomas, 76); Smith (James, 63), Parry (Baldwin 59), Arhip (Fia, 56); Beard, Jones; Mercer (Ashley, 56), Cross, King.
Referee: Marius Mitrea (Ita)