Saracens clinch semi-final spot despite eight minutes with 13 players


This Gallagher Premiership has been a treat since its resumption after the Guinness Six Nations, with a seven-game bottleneck for the four qualifying places giving added meaning to many of the matches.

Ashton Gate on Saturday afternoon was in keeping with that must-watch pattern, as two in-form title contenders put their final sizzling steaks to the line.

Something had to give in a big way and it did, as bragging rights emphatically went the way of a 41-20 semi-finalist Saracens despite an eight-minute second half being reduced to 13 men due to the pace. . Succession of Sin Maro Itoje and Ben Earl.

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Going into the Sunflower Test in Round 17, hosts Bristol were transformed, Pat Lam finally able to move the elusive 'Lampall', the arrogant, attack-from-nowhere rugby player who had vanished after their stunning 2021 semi-final crash to Harlequins. Six wins and the mantle of the league's top scorers has them flying in 2024.

Meanwhile, Saracens' performance was as good as the warning Mark McCall issued at Leicester when they were last beaten in the league in early January.

Combinations

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Bristol

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The defending champion reached this confrontation after five consecutive victories. However, with Bath and Sale both achieved Ws on Friday night, with the second place held by the Londoners going into the penultimate round of fixtures now becoming fourth.

The pressure was on the visitors to get back into the table, especially with Bristol sitting in fifth place, two points behind and in hot pursuit of McCall and co.

On a hot day in BS3 in front of 20,942 spectators, they showed why they are the reigning champions – first during the first half as an early 3-13 deficit defiantly turned into a 23-13 halftime lead with three-pointers. Owen Farrell and Etoukhi tried twice in the lead, then when two players fell short in the second half.

Although Lahm could be heard in his seat next to the media box for eight minutes shouting “Stop kicking the damn ball away” when it was cleared out of his own half rather than carried towards the halfway line, Bristol looked promising in the opening quarter.

Joe Batley's fifth-minute try and eight points from AJ MacGinty's kicks gave them a 10-point lead after 22 minutes.

However, just as they were about to escape Sifa Naulagu's deliberate yellow card without suffering any major damage, Ellis Genge's ball ended up inside his own 22 after Itoje exchanged the ball with Juan Martin Gonzalez to score.

That shattered Bristol's momentum and they could only watch in despair a few minutes later when a Gonzalez line robbed and the resulting monster 50:22 run by Farrell from his own 22 ignited the pressure that led to Itoje's second catch-and-drive attempt.

Add two penalties and a conversion from Elliot Daly, who took the kick from five-pointer Farrell who had a groin problem from the tee, and the half ended with Saracens in front and the feeling of the Rooster clearing away from the Ashton gate. Walking after Ben Earl had arranged for Bristol's foul line to be dropped when defending near his own line.

A home attack was expected on the resumption, and that came with multiple penalties upping the ante.

However, it initially ended with two Bristol players injured – including McGinty who called for an HIA – and Naulago spilled near the goal line in a play that ended at the other end as Saracens were awarded a 48th-minute penalty scored by Daly after an illicit shot from Gonzalez .

Itoje's yellow for a high tackle by Stephen Luatua gave Bristol a lifeline in the 50th minute which was further invigorated two minutes later when Earl also saw yellow for a breakdown infringement.

This was followed immediately by Harry Thacker's converted try, and with the deficit now remaining just six points and plenty of time remaining on the double sin, the scene was set for the home side to take control.

They didn't do it very hard. McCall cleverly changed four from his set at once and Saracens quickly had Daly on the tee to punish Magnus Bradbury down the side after a carry from the diving Ironi Māui.

Other subs were also involved, with mounting pressure dispatched with Theo McFarland at the end of the Itoje card. Rotimi Segun soon happily got into the corner for the unconverted try that pushed Saracens into a 34-20 lead.

Then, with the contest restored to 15 to 15, Gonzalez raced unopposed to claim the bonus point after a brilliant break from Lucio Cinti. Daly added the extras to complete the score 41-20, the momentum in the Bristol crowd was now very flat and that was it.

This will be remembered as a heroic effort from the champions that became crucial at the end of the season. By qualifying for the semi-finals, the team's next endeavor is to win the semi-final match at home when it hosts Salé next weekend.





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