Francois Hougaard breaks Bristol hearts on debut to keep Saracens riding high
No England internationals – Owen Farrell was not ‘available’ after all – but while you can strip Saracens of their stars, you cannot take away their spirit. For all this victory was dramatic, secured with two tries in the final four minutes, equally there was an inevitability to it as soon as they could scent Bristol blood in their nostrils.
Bristol looked to have the match won with an excellent score from Gabriel Ibitoye with 10 minutes to go but their failure to land the conversion left their lead at nine points. Saracens had been off-colour for much of the match but belatedly shifted up a gear and, once Rotimi Segun went over on the right with four minutes to go, you had to feel for the Bears, who had been dogged throughout but suddenly looked like men condemned.
Related: Italy’s Ivan Nemer suspended for giving rotten banana to clubmate Cherif Traorè
Mark McCall credited Billy Vunipola for “igniting” the comeback while Alex Goode produced the telling passes for each of Saracens’ tries - all on Jackson Wray’s 300th appearance for the club. They are undoubtedly weakened without their internationals but they have club stalwarts who are well versed in stepping up when required. “If you talked to Jackson he’d say some of the most satisfying games he’s played in are in the international windows when we’re seen as vulnerable and understrength,” said McCall. “It is difficult but it is rewarding as well.”
Northampton director of rugby Phil Dowson praised his squad for adapting to being without so many senior players following their 19-18 victory over Leicester.
Saints were missing five players on England duty and had not won an away game in the Premiership this season but showed impressive resilience to come from behind to secure a win that moves them up to third in the table.
Dowson said: “The more successful the club are generally, the more players they lose in the international window. The key is having guys in the squad who have a clear understanding of the gameplan and what their role is within that. I thought the guys that stepped in this week have been absolutely outstanding.”
Leicester struck after eight minutes through Harry Potter’s try but three penalties from George Furbank reduced their lead to 10-9 at half-time. After Furbank’s fourth penalty, Potter’s second try restored Leicester's advantage, but Ollie Sleightholme’s superbly-taken score after 50 minutes ultimately decided a tight contest.
Exeter leapfrogged Gloucester into the top four with a hard-fought 24-17 victory at Sandy Park.
First half tries from Jonny Gray, Solomone Kata and Olly Woodburn plus nine points from the boot of Harvey Skinner were enough for Exeter to secure back-to-back league wins for the first time since September.
Jonny May and Val Rapava Ruskin touched down for Gloucester in an entertaining first half and a late penalty from Santiago Carreras earned the visitors a losing bonus point.
It helps that Saracens have developed a knack of winning matches late this season – they are now 22 points ahead of Exeter in third place as a result of their refusal to accept defeat. After Segun’s score they were awarded a penalty, kicked to the corner and turned the screw before the 34-year-old South African Francois Hougaard – making his debut from the bench – finished off on the left.
It was a cruel blow for Bristol who are enduring another poor season but could not be faulted for effort here. They gained ascendancy at the breakdown, were helped by Saracens’ malfunctioning lineout, but scored fine tries through Harry Thacker and Ibitoye. Had either been converted it may have been a different story but they remain rooted to the foot of the table and unable to produce anything like the kind of form that the number of star names in their squad suggests they should.
Related: Wales’ Warren Gatland raises worries about Netflix’s Six Nations documentary
Saracens have been scratchy of late too and without their England contingent they found improvements hard to come by. Farrell, lest we forget, could not play in this match as it was the third and final game of his ban. He would not have played anyway – just as Maro Itoje, Ben Earl, Max Malins, Mako Vunipola and Nick Isiekwe as well as the injured pair of Jamie George and Elliot Daly did not – but the Rugby Football Union wrote to Saracens to say that he was “available” thereby ensuring he was free to face Scotland next weekend. That cynical exploitation of a loophole in the rules may seem small fry given the week the RFU has had but it sticks in the craw.
Bristol took the lead through an AJ MacGinty penalty and added their first try just before half-time when a driving maul finally paid dividends with the hooker Thacker going over. MacGinty missed the conversion, and a penalty just before the break, but Bristol were well worth their 8-0 interval lead. Saracens would have been further adrift but for a wonderful try-saving tackle from Duncan Taylor, who was named man-of-the-match but left the field late on in clear discomfort. He has had such a bad run with injuries the hope must be it is not serious.
Thacker failed to make it out for the second half but two penalties from James Williams – either side of one from Alex Goode to finally get Saracens on the board – extended Bristol’s lead. Saracens moved ominously within touching distance when Theo Dan went over at the back of a maul but Bristol showed commendable patience to put Ibitoye away. The conversion was missed and that proved costly as Segun struck before Hougaard had the final say.