Elliot Daly and Owen Farrell chase down Max Bodilly of Ealing
Credit: Getty Images
Warren Gatland’s decision to select five Saracens in his British and Irish Lions squad certainly put a different spin on the criticism copped by Eddie Jones during the Six Nations.
With the benefit of hindsight, Jones may still wish he had freshened up his England squad before an underwhelming tournament. Even so, Gatland’s picks offered some endorsement of the call to keep faith.
And now, you can be sure that the Lions head coach is glad to be bringing his Saracens contingent to South Africa.
On paper, Sunday’s 60-0 thrashing of Ealing Trailfinders was unsurprising. Mark McCall could field eight of the starting side from the 2019 Champions Cup final, which brought victory over Leinster. Saracens took to the field with 12 full internationals against Ealing.
Still, the manner of their performance on a blazing hot afternoon deserves praise. Against hosts that had averaged over 50 points per match in the regular season, Saracens bristled with authority.
As part of a mightily strong collective display, the individual performances of Elliot Daly, Owen Farrell, Maro Itoje, Jamie George and Mako Vunipola will have thoroughly pleased Gatland.
Snarl and fight from first to last
In the seventh minute, shortly after Saracens had moved 3-0 in front, there is a fleeting exchange between Ealing lock Bobby de Wee and Farrell.
Referee Wayne Barnes blows for a penalty to Ealing and De Wee feigns a pick and go. Farrell, stationed around the fringes, does not flinch. The players engage in a brief face-off and exchange words:
It is an innocuous episode, but one that reflects Saracens’ determination not to be intimidated or rattled. You expect professionalism and focus. This is something else – something edgier.
Farrell, whose intensity has not relented in the second tier, embodies such an attitude. His teammates followed the lead of their captain.
- Read: What is it really like to play against Owen Farrell – and is the England captain ready for the Lions tour?
Here, at the start of the second quarter, Mako Vunipola reads a clever move from Ealing that sends blindside wing Dean Hammond looping around the front of the lineout.
Vunipola senior bustles around the back of the set piece to help Aled Davies force Hammond into touch:
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Itoje was typically relentless. As if to sum that up, he produced three pieces of disruptive defence in the space of the final five minutes. Saracens were already leading 55-0.
First, he rises in front of Rayn Smid to flick this lineout back towards Saracens:
Next, Itoje slips off a turning maul – having stayed legal by keeping the same bind – to charge down Ealing scrum-half Craig Hampson:
Finally, he plucks Michael van Vuuren’s throw for a clean steal:
Saracens boasted far more pedigree than Ealing. But their ruthlessness, a quality that Gatland admires and will need in South Africa, accentuated that superiority. Frankly, in this mood, they would have made a mess of most Premiership sides.
Owen Farrell’s fluidity
A spell in the Championship seems to have invigorated Farrell and Sunday represented his most decisive attacking performance for some time.
When he stays square and preoccupies defenders with a running threat, he looks more dangerous. We start this clip after the Saracens lineout maul has eked out a penalty advantage.
Kieran Murphy and Craig Willis are the defenders to watch:
Perhaps helped by the element of surprise inside his own 22, Farrell takes Davies’ pass and sprints at the space between them before releasing a deft offload to Nick Tompkins:
Minutes later, two more offloads from Farrell lay on a try for Davies. First, watch the finish through:
Clearly, defences in South Africa are going to be more robust than this. However, Farrell does show sharp awareness. Look at the breakdown prior to Jackson Wray’s break, formed following a Billy Vunipola carry.
Three of Ealing’s forwards – tighthead prop Kyle Whyte, openside flanker Simon Uzokwe and hooker Shaun Malton – are on the floor. Loosehead prop Will Davis is in the guard position on the near side, apparently complaining to Barnes that Uzokwe should have been rewarded with a jackal turnover. Lock James Cannon is next to him.
On the far side of this ruck, there is a huge gap to the next defenders, Matt Gordon and Willis:
Tompkins steps up at first-receiver and speeds towards the space. Farrell abandons any predetermined pattern to follow his centre:
Farrell’s offload to Wray is what sweeps Saracens behind Ealing. But what creates the try is his ability to get back into the game, in the very next phase, from this position:
Tim Swinson is the next carrier and Farrell chases the lock – again abandoning structure to pick off the disorganised defence in front of him – to gather a dipping pass and dart to within five metres and lift the scoring pass to Davies.
Just after half-time, another Saracens attack blended identification of space, skill and off-the-ball work. Watch how play develops from Alex Goode’s kick-return.
Farrell speeds around the breakdown to the near side, bringing George with him. Tompkins backs away too, and Saracens can flood down the 15-metre channel:
Farrell is clattered by James Gibbons after his pass to Alex Lewington:
But, by the time Davies finds first-receiver Tompkins from the next breakdown…
…he has bounced up and made it to the other flank to gather Goode’s pass. Farrell ghosts through two defenders and feeds Daly unselfishly:
This brings us neatly to the next area that will have piqued Gatland’s interest.
Elliot Daly finds form – at centre
One facet of Saracens’ play that has made an impression on Championship opponents is the on-field relationship between Farrell and Daly.
When in action together for England, the pair often swing around breakdowns together to stretch defences:
They have brought the same habit to Saracens, Daly so often shadowing Farrell:
Indeed, the pair are part of a beautifully balanced backline under McCall. Full-back Goode offers poise behind them and provides crisp passing to the outside channels. Inside centre Tompkins is a tenacious operator who cleans up scrappy situations and makes things happen.
Scrum-half Davies is growing more comfortable and wings Sean Maitland and Alex Lewington are quick, nimble and committed in the air.
Daly’s great strength is his outside break. From this scrum, we see how it scrambles defences. Davies feeds Farrell, who is tracked by Hampson. Max Bodilly and James Cordy-Redden are part of Ealing’s front line:
Farrell takes the ball flat and fizzes a pass across Tompkins, whose angle holds Bodilly. Daly can attack the space between Bodilly and Cordy-Redden:
He speeds around Bodilly, causing Cordy-Redden to jam in as well. Even Ealing full-back David Johnston is fixed:
Having committed three defenders, Daly flicks an underhand pass towards Maitland:
It reaches its target, but the left wing cannot hold on:
Gatland and Gregor Townsend have both emphasised that Daly has been picked for the Lions tour as an outside centre, which means his defensive positioning and decision-making will come under the microscope.
From this first-half lineout, Ealing challenged those qualities. De Wee is the target and Hampson arcs around from the front:
He feeds Uzokwe, who finds Willis behind the run of Gordon. Take note of Daly’s position as Hammond charges into shot:
Johnston and Bodilly arrive, all of them heading towards Daly’s channel. Hammond is the recipient of the next pass, which travels behind Johnston.
Faced with all of that, Daly stays calm. He does not bite on to Johnston but waits and pushes beyond the decoy runner to cut down Hammond:
Farrell competes at the next breakdown and there is a fumble on the following phase as George pressurises Malton.
After the final of Rugby World Cup 2019, Eddie Jones suggested that he should have picked Joe Marler to start against the Springboks instead of Mako Vunipola.
South African tighthead props will fancy their chances of overpowering and outmanoeuvring the latter over the next couple of months, but he seems to be in strong scrummaging form.
Saracens milked penalties on their own put-in and against the head. Interestingly, Itoje – who has scrummaged on both sides for club and country – was stationed on the loosehead while Vunipola was on the field:
Given Gatland will be tapping into Saracens’ intellectual property via the lineout axis of George and Itoje, a few rumbling mauls bode well. George enjoyed his try on the stroke of half-time and Billy Vunipola was the beneficiary here.
Itoje is the jumper and George and Mako Vunipola add their muscle to the melee:
No stopping the @Saracens pack from there 🚜
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Fresh as well as firing
As much as he will respect Ealing and the integrity of the competition, McCall now has a 60-point cushion and the option of resting his Lions for the second leg of the Championship final.
At the weekend, they seemed hungry and fresh despite harsh conditions. This explosive burst and offload from Mako Vunipola was another energetic moment:
No club or province can match Saracens’ contribution of five players to Lions party. Of course, the tourists will face fired-up South African opposition that will be of a significantly higher standard.
Still, as things stand, you sense Gatland will be feeling pretty content about his selections.
Match images from Premier Sports