Tottenham Hotspur stadium

Showdown 3: Saracens light up north London with dazzling display

Saracens have long been thought of as a pragmatic and perhaps boring rugby team, underpinned by an excellent kicking game and strong set pieces.

This description is poles apart from the flare-filled, free-flowing attacking rugby that London rivals Harlequins play. 

So when Alastair Eykyn was reduced to a simple description of ‘poetry’ as the fourth try at The Showdown 3 was scored you would assume Saracens were the victims.

The roar at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium suggested otherwise, when Andy Christie arrived at the try line untouched as the beneficiary of a wonderful set of phases. 

The move was started in Saracens’ half by Billy Vunipola and Sean Maitland who provided two late passes giving Max Malins space down the right wing.

This allowed Ivan Van Zyl the go-forward necessary to put a squeeze on and find Maitland – ready to put his fellow Scotsman into the corner. 

It was the pick of the tries in the first half and rounded off a period of 22 unanswered points by the league leaders.

They had gone 0-7 down within three minutes as Alex Dombrandt appeared to be feeling none of the effects of a tiresome Six Nations campaign with England as he dotted down for the opening try. 

But as champion sides tend to do, Saracens responded. With interest. 

The tries ramped up in difficulty as the half wore on, first a clever Ben Earl offload sent Alex Lozowski into a hole beside the posts before the big names combined with crisp handling to give Nick Tompkins a five-pointer. 

The latter came off the back of a lineout and Vunipola, Owen Farrell and Van Zyl were simply too sharp.

Quins were suffocating in defence under the constant barrage of hard lines and with no time to recover their half-time deficit was 15 points. 

Farrell’s involvement was constant in attack as he consistently put his fellow outside backs into gaps, utilised spiral bombs to put the Quins back three under pressure and found great distance from penalties. 

The Saracens and England captain led from the front until he was forced off by re-aggravating a recent ankle injury.

Perhaps it was the playing out of Steve Borthwick’s interminable fly-half selection dilemma that people were most interested in pre-game. Marcus Smith versus Farrell, who would triumph?

Smith was similarly excellent in a system which clearly suits him better than that of England and provided the assist for both Dombrandt’s try and Cadan Murley’s first visit to the Saracens’ try line with passes fired into their paths.

But for the Quins playmaker, the missed opportunities highlighted the difference between the team comfortably top of the table and a side who have lost seven of their last eight Gallagher Premiership matches.

Nick David should have put Quins within ten points of Saracens inside the final 15 minutes, but he fumbled inches away from the line thanks to Malins’ desperate cover tackle.

Saracens also produced three crucial turnovers in their own 22 to give Smith even less chance of utilising his full attacking repertoire.

Farrell was the orchestrator of one of these, stealing the ball in the tackle to highlight again how Saracens were beating Quins at their own game.

Despite his four missed tackles in the game, Farrell looked superior to Smith in defence. 

Borthwick’s main regret watching this game may have been his decision to omit Murley from the starting squad in the Six Nations.

The explosive Harlequins winger was excellent, particularly when given a sniff in front of the try line. 

On two occasions he made regular England starting winger Malins, who was otherwise impressive, look ordinary in defence as he powered directly over the top of him to touchdown on the left wing.

His brace was part of a losing cause as Luke Northmore was sin-binned in the 64th minute for taking a cheap shot on Farrell as he followed through on an attempted charge down, which put Quins down a player and chasing against a Saracens team close to their best.

Maro Itoje scored from the resulting penalty and kick into the corner to put the score out of sight at 36-19 in front of the 55,109 in attendance and the 1.5 million watching on ITV.

Saracens secured a home semi-final with three games left to play in the season and Tabai Matson’s post-game sentiment of describing the ‘complete team’ was apt.

Both their dogged defence and clinical attack appeared as that of the champion Saracens sides of old. 

They will be hoping Farrell’s ankle isn’t season-ending and that the 31-year-old will return to marshal his team back to Gallagher Premiership and Heineken Champions Cup silverware, a double they last completed in the 2018-19 season. 

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