Monday 27 January 2020

Saracens survive sending off to keep quarter-final hopes alive

Champions Cup round-up

Saracens’ teenage fly-half Manu Vunipola
Saracens’ teenage fly-half Manu Vunipola

Mark McCall admitted he was "proud and thrilled" after Saracens' memorable triumph over adversity against Ospreys in Swansea.

Saracens' 22-15 Champions Cup victory kept alive their quarter-final hopes, and it was achieved despite having Wales international prop Rhys Carré sent off in the fifth minute. They even went down to 13 men when flanker Calum Clark was sin-binned, but 17 points from teenage fly-half Manu Vunipola [cousin of Billy and Mako] and an Alex Lewington try saw them home.

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It means they are likely to reach the last eight for a ninth successive season by beating Allianz Park visitors Racing 92 next weekend.

Saracens arrived at the Liberty Stadium after a week when lawyer Neil Golding was appointed as non-executive chairman, while it also emerged that players are set to be trimmed from a star-studded squad in order to comply with salary cap regulations. Saracens were docked 35 Premiership points and fined £5.36 million after being found to have exceeded the £7m salary cap limit for the past three seasons.

"We were down to 14 men for virtually the whole match, really, and the way the players problem solved all the way through the game was outstanding," said Saracens rugby director McCall, who rested the likes of Owen Farrell, Jamie George and Maro Itoje.

On the red card, awarded following a shoulder-led hit to Ospreys full-back Dan Evans' head, McCall added: "If the referee said it was a head contact, you are going to face the consequences, but I haven't seen it closely enough."

Stuart Hogg was denied a last-minute winner against former club Glasgow as his 50-metre penalty hit the bar but a pulsating 31-31 draw edged Exeter into the Champions Cup quarter-finals.

The Premiership leaders needed only a point to secure top spot in Pool 2 and the teams shared eight tries and six points at Scotstoun.

Glasgow were left to rue yellow cards in each half, to Callum Gibbins and Fraser Brown, and two huge chances for Huw Jones which went begging in the opening five minutes of the second half.

They move on to 12 points ahead of their final game at Sale next weekend and have slim hopes of reaching the last eight as one of the three best runners-up.

Northampton will aim to keep their Heineken Champions Cup quarter-final hopes alive when they face Benetton today. Victory over the Italian side at Franklin's Gardens would keep Saints on course to progress as a best runner-up.

Leinster have already won Pool One, but success this weekend would give Northampton everything to play for in their final game against Lyon.

Gloucester are also still in contention to reach the knockout stages after a bonus point victory over Montpellier.

Johan Ackerman's men must win their final pool game away to leaders Toulouse next Sunday to have a chance of going through with the French side.

Montpellier, who are bottom of Pool 5, had won just one of their previous five matches in all competitions. Despite dominating the first half the hosts failed to capitalise as they struggled to get to grips with the windy conditions and the first half ended 7-3 in their favour.

With Montpellier losing three men to injury in the first half, Gloucester were able to secure the bonus point with tries from Louis Rees-Zammit, Ben Morgan and Todd Gleave for a 29-6 victory.

Ackerman said: "We don't do it on purpose, but I'd love to see the team when we can play well in the first half as well."

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