Saracens may be down but they are far from out. The champions of England and Europe, who have been demoted to the Championship for next season, are determined to show their success in recent years was due to attitude, not to cheating the Premiership’s salary cap.
Saturday’s 25-17 European Champions Cup victory over Leinster at the Aviva Stadium earned them a semi-final on Saturday at Racing 92, whom they beat in the 2016 final, and a potential showdown next month with their fiercest critics, Exeter, whose chairman, Tony Rowe, said they should be stripped of their Premiership titles, claiming they were ill-gotten gains.
“We are not looking for any sympathy because what is happening is happening,” said the Saracens scrum-half Richard Wigglesworth, who is retiring at the end of the season, after the victory was achieved without 10 players who have either left the club or gone on loan since lockdown, as well as the suspended Owen Farrell. “Maybe we deserved this and we are having to do it the hard way with one hand tied behind our backs.
“Perhaps it will prove that what we built is true and special. We want to do well in Europe for each other rather than prove anything to anyone else. I’d be lying if it wasn’t a bonus to show everyone, but it is definitely not the primary motivation. We had wanted to play Leinster for months and months and struggled in recent weeks to find the level of performance that got us through.”
There was, not surprisingly, an emotional response to the victory over a team who had not been beaten since the Champions Cup final in May 2019 in Newcastle, when Saracens came from behind to win. Racing, who defeated Saracens on the opening weekend of the Champions Cup this season but lost the return, will demand the same energy, drive and focus and, like Leinster, will have the better-stocked bench.
“We are going to have to come down, relax and then go again,” Wigglesworth added. “We will face a massive French team with a huge budget and stars galore who are desperate to win this competition. We know what level of emotion and intensity we need to bring.”
The success against Leinster was built on defence. Saracens made more than twice as many tackles as their opponents and made do with 37% of possession, but the pressure they exerted earned them 15 penalties, seven at the scrum, and six were turned into points.
“It was a special victory given who we were facing, but ultimately it is no more than any other quarter-final win,” said Wigglesworth. “We had a brilliant meeting the night before the game. People spoke about what it meant to them and there was talk about going out on a high. There are also a few new lads who hadn’t experienced those highs, so we owed it to them to show what it is all about.”
Saracens have won the European Cup three times, one behind Leinster and Toulouse, who reached the semi‑final with a 36-8 victory over Ulster on Sunday at Stade Ernest Wallon in front of 5,000 spectators. The South Africa wing Cheslin Kolbe scored two of their five tries.