Saracens are about to vanish from the Premiership’s radar for a while but they can now do so secure in the knowledge they did not disappear without a murmur. A characteristically defiant fightback from 17-3 down in abysmal conditions in north London not only earned them a deserved draw in their final pre-relegation league game but also left Bath’s play-off chances up in the air pending the outcome of Sale’s rescheduled game on Wednesday.
Never before have two teams concluded their regular season with such little idea when their next game is going to be. Such is the thick cloud of uncertainty currently hanging over professional rugby it could conceivably be next September before Saracens play another league fixture, while Bath must sweat over whether they will meet Exeter in a semi-final at Sandy Park on Saturday or miss out entirely.
At the end of a season of unprecedented length it reflects the avoidable knots in which rugby continues to tie itself. The decision to allow the Sale game to be delayed, thus ensuring the final-round games would no longer be played simultaneously, always had the capacity to cause serious disruption to the semi-final picture and so it has proved. If the Sharks are able to play and Bath miss out on the top four, one suspects the latter’s millionaire owner, Bruce Craig, will need peeling from the ceiling of his French chateau.
It would certainly have saved Bath some angst over the next couple of days had the visitors hung on to their 14-point advantage in the final quarter. In this case the Saracens scrum, with Maro Itoje straining every sinew, made crucial headway in the final quarter and a 74th-minute score from Tim Swinson, plus a tricky rain-lashed conversion from Manu Vunipola, extended Bath’s historic failure to win at Allianz Park for another 12 months at least.
Close examination will highlight a couple of crucial spilt balls that gave Saracens the chance to strike back but the visitors’ director of rugby, Stuart Hooper, said he will still be instructing his team to prepare for a semi-final in Exeter regardless of the Sale situation. “The only thing we can do is keep our faith in PRL because it’s not our decision,” said Hooper. “We’re still in it right now.”
All Saracens can do is wait. Mark McCall, their director of rugby, confirmed afterwards he has no idea when his side will play again or when the Championship will restart. Mooted friendlies with South African provinces in January remain unconfirmed, for obvious reasons. As it stands the only certainty is that the Premiership will kick off without the erstwhile champions next month, courtesy of the salary cap saga that cost them a deduction of 105 league points. At one point Paradise by Coldplay was played over the public address, possibly for ironic effect.
It was certainly not a fitting backdrop for Saracens to bid farewell to their long-serving totems Richard Wigglesworth and the injured Brad Barritt, who have given so much to the cause in good times and bad. Initially it was Bath who showed much more purpose, a successful kick-off chase yielding early field position from which Beno Obano crashed over from close range with barely three minutes gone. Worse was to follow for Saracens when Spencer, reacting quickest to Wayne Barnes’ whistle, took a quick tap penalty and outpaced both Saracens’s halfbacks to add another eye-catching try to his growing collection.
With a head injury ending Jackson Wray’s game prematurely, in addition to the late withdrawal of the prop Richard Barrington with a shoulder problem, Sarries had it all to do. Against all odds they clawed their way back into contention with a 64th-minute penalty try and, with Bath suddenly unable to cling to the ball, there was a sense of inevitability about Swinson’s close-range plunge following another dominant home scrum.
“It was a proper Saracens performance in the second half,” said McCall. “We had our backs to the wall and we needed to show some fight. We had all the characteristics and qualities you would expect.” For now it is a case of paradise lost but Saracens will be back sooner or later.