SARACENS overcame a hugely below-par performance to secure a 27-9 victory over relegated Bristol on Saturday and keep alive their hopes of securing a home tie in the play-offs.
An emotional afternoon at Allianz Park saw club legends Neil de Kock and Kelly Brown both take to the pitch for the final time before retiring, while the match also saw Schalk Brits become just the tenth player ever to reach 200 appearances for the club.
However, Sarries’ display failed to match the occasion as they were well below their best and found themselves trailing 9-3 at the interval before eventually taking control in the second half, running in four tries to pick up a bonus point.
Petrus du Plessis – who had failed to previously score a try in 155 appearances for the club – led the way by touching down twice, with Chris Ashton and Nick Tompkins also crossing the line to seal a triumph which means that Saracens will be at home in the play-offs if they win at Wasps in their final match of the regular season on Saturday (4.30pm).
“I think it was a really disappointing performance,” said director of rugby Mark McCall. “We’ve got certain standards that we want to aspire to and we fell short of those.
“To give Bristol credit I think they really got stuck in. We were aware that they would do that because against Wasps and Exeter in their last two performances they were really good and really physical.
“The players are unbelievably disappointed, but the day was about two individuals really in Kelly and Neil and the two incredible careers that they’ve had – they’re great rugby men. We would have liked to play a little bit better to say goodbye to them.”
Sarries’ display was error-strewn from the start as they made numerous handling errors, and they squandered an opportunity to open the scoring on six minutes when Owen Farrell’s penalty drifted wide.
The hosts then nearly claimed a try on 16 minutes when Alex Lozowski intercepted a stray pass and raced forward, but Ashton failed to collect his pass when he would have had a clear run to the line.
Ashton did touch down eight minutes later after hacking ahead twice and winning the race for the ball after Maro Itoje had blocked a kick, but the try was disallowed for offside and play was brought back for a penalty to Bristol instead which Gavin Henson slotted over the open the scoring.
Two further penalties from Henson extended the visitors’ advantage to 9-0 before Farrell finally opened Saracens’ account by kicking a penalty five minutes before the interval.
Although still not at their best, the hosts did improve in the second half and they claimed the opening try of the match on 46 minutes when a rare spell of good handling ended with Ashton being found out wide. He kicked ahead and won the race to the ball to touch down in the corner. Farrell added the conversion to put Sarries ahead for the first time.
The hosts were increasingly dominant after this and they struck again 14 minutes later. Farrell kicked a penalty into the corner, and after Itoje won the resulting line-out, the pack drove over the line – with du Plessis the man to get the final touch.
The third try arrived just three minutes later as Schalk Burger stole possession at a Bristol line-out to set up an excellent attacking platform and Lozowski broke clear of the defence before putting Tompkins away to score. Farrell was unable to convert either of the tries.
A number of good attacking opportunities were squandered after this but Sarries did eventually manage to claim the bonus-point try with just two minutes remaining.
The score was virtually identical to their second try as Farrell kicked another a penalty into the corner and, having won the line-out, the home pack set up a driving maul which powered over the line. Du Plessis was again the man to get the final touch and Farrell’s successful conversion rounded off the scoring.
Saracens: Goode (Gallagher 74), Ashton, Tompkins, Lozowski, Wyles (Ellery 60), Farrell, de Kock (Wigglesworth 52), M Vunipola (Lamositele 55), Brits (George 55), Koch (du Plessis 55), Itoje, Kruis (Hamilton 60), Brown (Earl 66), Burger, B Vunipola.
Bristol: Woodward (Pisi 66), Edwards, Hurrell, Henson (Piutau 60), Tovey, Searle, Mathewson (Williams 60), O’Connell (Dawe 66), Jones (Crumpton 60), Cortes (Ford-Robinson 41), Phillips, Sorenson (Glynn 60), Jeffries, Robinson (Fenton-Wells 60), Eadie.