Gregor Townsend admitted that on their day, Saracens may be an unbeatable side after they brushed aside his Glasgow Warriors side to reach the European Champions Cup semi-finals courtesy of a 38-13 victory at Allianz Park.
The reigning European champions ran in four tries as they once again found their stride, just a week after putting 50 points past Bath here in North London. Having suffered something of a blip in the Premiership during the last two months as they dropped from the top of the tree to third, the return of their international contingent looks to have returned them to the heady heights they hold themselves by.
Had Townsend been asked about that before kick-off, the soon-to-be Scotland head coach would have claimed any game is winnable, but after watching Chris Ashton score two tries against his side along with further scores from Marcelo Bosch and Brad Barritt, he was no longer so sure after the quarter-final defeat.
“A French journalist spoke to me at the beginning of the year and said ‘Saracens are going to win in Europe, they’re just unbeatable’ and I thought ‘what? Surely every game is a winnable one’,” Townsend said. “The view from their side, maybe that was just one French journalist or the view from French rugby, but when you see them like that today they’re very difficult to beat and they’ve certainly expanded their game as well.
“We saw that last week against Bath and today, the ratio of driven lineouts to off the top was much less than I had been in their league games, maybe because of the weather or maybe because of league games. Of course, they’re looking to bring players into play and they got their back three on the ball a lot today and they were excellent.”
One of those back-three was, of course, Ashton, and the exiled England wing scored twice for the second week in succession to not only pave the way for Saracens’s progression to the last four – where they will take on Munster – but also equal Vincent Clerc’s all-time record 36 tries in European competition.
“I thought his all-round game was really strong today: good in the air, good defensively, and we gave him enough chances to score a couple,” said the Saracens director of rugby Mark McCall. “It’s great that he took the chances he did.”
McCall now faces the prospect of preparing his side for a trip to Dublin to face Munster in the semi-final, something that will feel all too familiar for many of his players after England’s Grand Slam-miss three weeks ago in the Six Nations. The emotion of 50,000 fans inside the Aviva Stadium will be enough to humble most teams, but Munster will also be powered by the emotion of the passing of their former head coach, Anthony Foley, who died suddenly last October during the current campaign, and the determination to do the former Ireland forward the ultimate tribute.
“The players don't realise it yet, but hopefully they will when they get there, it's going to be a very special day,” McCall added. “We played Clermont a couple of years ago when there were 30,000 Clermont fans and us. That was different, but this is going to be double that – there will be 50,000 Munster fans.
“We all know there's an emotional element to this game and we have to make sure we're able to cope with that. Doing that will be one of our tasks over the next few weeks.
“One of the benefits for us is that we have players who have been through it all before. They experienced what they did two weeks ago and experienced a lot of knock-out games over the last five seasons. This is our fifth semi-final in a row, which is an achievement in itself, but clearly this is going to be a very different semi-final because of the atmosphere.”