Westerners out on a whimper
Saracens 64 Connacht 6
Saracens secured the last quarter-final berth after enjoying a cruise against opponents who won in Toulouse last month. Alex Goode has the considerable task of dislodging Mike Brown from the England team for the Six Nations given the full-back's performances in the autumn, but he has more than the bench on his mind.
Goode turned what had been a close, fractious contest -- in which the Connacht prop Nathan White was fortunate to receive only a yellow card after raking his foot down the face of Brad Barritt, who was lying at the bottom of a ruck, albeit not making any attempt to get out of the way -- into a romp that took last season's semi-finalists into the last eight for the third season in a row.
Barritt drew the referee's attention to the incident, which was reviewed by the television match official, Gareth Simmonds. White waved an apology to Barritt on his way to the sin bin and it was a case of drowning for Connacht after that.
Saracens were 8-6 ahead on the half-hour -- Chris Ashton smartly scoring his sixth try of the tournament this season, in between two Dan Parks penalties -- but struggling to put phases together when Schalk Brits took a quick throw just inside his own half and Goode set off. The player who acted as England's second receiver from full-back last season may not have the pace to worry Usain Bolt, but his ability to step off both feet, to exploit space, took the game away from Connacht in 12 minutes either side of half-time.
He was not tempted to kick after receiving the throw from Brits, running down the left wing and leaving a trail of defenders behind him. Charlie Hodgson took the move on and David Strettle, overlooked by England this month, scored the first of his three tries before Brits made the interval score 18-6 after Saracens drove a maul from a lineout.
A brawl broke out after the try, which summed up an ill-tempered opening period, but the pace after the break was such that they did not have the energy to shake a fist in anger, or the time, as Connacht were pressed into all-out defence.
Goode's counter-attack in the second minute of the second half, weaving in and out of three tackles, created Strettle's second try and secured the bonus point, before the full-back -- receiving on the left-hand touchline on halfway -- ran across field to find the faultline in the defence, before stepping inside and out of tackles, and having the pace to finish on the outside.
After that, it was a procession: George Kruis scored from another driving maul; Chris Wyles only had to catch the ball after the replacement hooker Jamie George showed he had Brits's qualities in the loose, quick feet and hands; Jackson Wray was put over by Goode; and another replacement, James Johnston, took his team passed 50 points after Connacht again failed to defend a driving lineout.
Strettle and Ashton completed the rout, which would have been considerably greater but for Hodgson's uncharacteristic waywardness with the boot. He missed seven conversions and a penalty, hitting the post on four occasions, but it did not matter on an afternoon when Saracens fully exploited a synthetic surface unaffected by the recent heavy rain. Their only concern was Owen Farrell's swift departure with a cut head after he had replaced Hodgson, but Saracens said afterwards it was a minor one.
It may be the last Heineken Cup match here for a while, with Saracens on the road in April's quarter-finals having qualified as one of the two best runners-up. They had to wait for the matches in the afternoon and the evening to know where they would be going but, having come to terms with the demands of Europe, they may find themselves taking a break from the tournament.
The Saracens' chairman, Nigel Wray, used his programme notes to comment on the dispute over the future of the Heineken Cup, that it would be second rate without the English and French. That prospect beckons next season, with a meeting on Friday between all the unions involved in Europe, with the exception of the English.
The five remain committed to playing the Heineken Cup next season without the Premiership clubs, but France's commitment would be half-hearted, with some second division teams potentially filling their six places. The four Welsh regions will not take part, which makes it all the more strange that their union is the most gung-ho about what would effectively be a RaboDirect Cup with some forlorn French tinsel.
Scorers -- Saracens: Strettle 3 tries; Ashton, Wyles 2 tries each; Goode, Kruis, Johnston, Brits try; Hodgson 3 cons, pen
Connacht: Parks 2 pens.
Saracens: A Goode; C Ashton, D Taylor (C Wyles 52), B Barritt, D Strettle, C Hodgson (O Farrell 59), R Wigglesworth (N de Kock 50); M Vunipola (R Barrington 55), S Brits (J George 50), M Stevens (J Johnston 50); S Borthwick, G Kruis (A Hargreaves 58), B Vunipola, K Brown (J Wray 63), E Joubert.
Connacht: G Duffy; F Carr (O'Donohoe 63), R Henshaw, E Griffin, M Healy, D Parks (J Carty 50), K Marmion; B Wilkinson (D Buckley 41), S Henry (D Leader 59), N White ( R Ah You 50); M Swift (M Kearney 50), C Clarke, A Browne, J Heenan (G Naoupu 59), J Muldoon.
Referee: Leighton Hodges (Wales).