Here was a lesson for Glasgow Warriors in the dangers of leaving their best until last. This polished bonus-point victory in their final match of a Champions Cup pool campaign in which they have blown hot and cold with near clockwork regularity put Dave Rennie’s men into the eighth and final Champions Cup quarter-final qualifying spot on Saturday night – but their hopes of being involved in the knockout stage were dashed on Sunday afternoon when Saracens defeated Racing 92 27-24 to leapfrog them in the rankings.
Saracens’ place in the last eight was then sealed when Gloucester lost to Toulouse.
It was a remarkable result by Saracens, achieved in very difficult circumstances. The north London side, who have dominated both English and European rugby in recent years, found out on Saturday evening that they are being thrown out of the Gallagher Premiership for failing to get their wage bill back under the league’s salary cap.
The implications of this are hard to predict, but we know they will be both deep and far-reaching, and it is of huge credit to the players and coaching team that they managed to rouse themselves to secure this vital win – especially after losing Billy Vunipola to a suspected broken arm and then second-row Will Skelton to a red card for a dangerous tackle just before half-time, at which point they were trailing the French side by 17-21.
There has been lots of praise for the “Saracens wolf-pack” mentality during their period on top, but a test of real character is how you respond to real adversity, and even those revelling in the club’s demise must recognise how special this performance was. The quarter-final draw lines Saracens up with a trip to Dublin at the start of April to take on Leinster, whom they defeated in last year’s final, for what is bound to be a monumental occasion.
Warriors, meanwhile, have been left ruing the pool points they let slip through their fingers earlier in the campaign, particularly their defeat at home to La Rochelle in round four, only seven days after they had beaten the Frenchmen at the Stade Marcel Deflandre in round three.
Rennie, inset, also suggested after the match that his team could have taken five points instead of three from last week’s home draw against Exeter Chiefs, but that doesn’t feel quite so much like a golden opportunity missed given it was against one of the big favourites in this year’s tournament.
You can’t help but wonder whether Warriors might have been contemplating a quarter-final appearance had Leone Nakarawa been on the books from the start of the campaign, and not just making his season debut on Saturday.
It takes more than one man to make a team capable of competing against the best Europe has to offer, but the giant Fijian’s power, dynamism, combativeness and ability to tie up three defenders at once then get an outrageous offload away is not only a threat in itself, it also opens up spaces across the park for the many dangerous runners in the side who have so often found themselves suffocated by defences who have become wise to their threat this season.
Nakarawa marked his return to Warriors colours after three and a half years in France with a try inside three minutes, when he picked up from the base of a close-range ruck and powered over the line.
It was a bad start for a youthful Sale side and it became worse when their skipper, Jono Ross, was shown a yellow card when his forearm made contact with an opponent’s head as he hit the ground after making a tackle, and Warriors capitalised from the resulting penalty by kicking to the corner and then driving hooker Fraser Brown home.
Nakarawa was sent to the sin-bin just before the break for re-entering a maul from the side but that did not alter the general flow of the game, with Sam Johnson darting over following a quick tap penalty from Adam Hastings in the 47th minute.
Jake Cooper-Woolley got Sale on the scoreboard after good work by Denny Solomona up the right wing, but Warriors bounced back with a Hastings penalty and a well-deserved try by the formidable Jonny Gray, who – on this evidence – is hitting form at just the right time for the Six Nations.
Warriors were in complete control. Niko Matawalu got close but couldn’t quite get downward pressure on the ball as it bounced in the in-goal area, and Huw Jones had one chalked off after a fantastic sweeping attack because Gray had picked up from an offside position, before George Turner finished off the scoring in style, hitting a devastating angle then weaving past three defenders on his way to the line.