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Maro Itoje double leads Saracens to commanding win over battling Bristol
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Maro Itoje double leads Saracens to commanding win over battling Bristol

For all the unpredictability that swirls around the Premiership run-in, there is something inevitable about Saracens. Here was an imperious bonus-point victory against a Bristol side who came into the match as the Premiership’s form team and an ominous warning to the rest of the title contenders.

Saracens handled pretty much everything that the Bears threw at them – even with 13 men for eight minutes – and picked them off with an authority that demonstrates they are still the team to beat this season, scoring four tries in the process including two for Maro Itoje. It was the kind of performance they have delivered so often in knockout stages of major competitions and one that will make their rivals take note.

Owen Farrell was excellent, pulling the strings and directing operations and there were standout performers in Juan Martín González, Nick Tompkins and Mako Vunipola too. There was even a 10-minute run-out for brother Billy – his first appearance since his arrest in Mallorca. Bristol, meanwhile, have had their bubble burst and up against it to reach the playoffs now with a final-day trip to Harlequins to come.

Saracens, however, are assured of a playoff spot and on this evidence a return to Twickenham for an eighth final in 11 years is on the cards – no mean feat given the upheaval throughout a season which started with a thrashing at Exeter. Mark McCall has been encouraging a goldfish mentality at the club – made popular by the hit TV show Ted Lasso – so much so that they have some in a bowl at their training ground.

“If you can just drop what has happened and put all of your energy into what’s next, that’s the goal all the time,” he said. “It’s been a season where we’ve had some tough team moments but there have also been enough really, really good performances. Our defensive performance was as good as I can remember for a good while.”

Bristol began with their tails up – they have rediscovered their mojo by embracing their attacking instincts again – and scored first through Joe Batley. An AJ MacGinty penalty soon stretched Bristol’s advantage to 10-0 but from there followed a masterclass from Saracens, who refused to panic, scrapped their way back into the match before spreading their wings.

Farrell got them on the scoreboard with a straightforward penalty after Siva Naulago was sent to the sin-bin for the deliberate knock-on. Another three points from MacGinty restored Bristol’s 10-point lead but Saracens crucially struck with their first try just before Naulago returned – a well-worked move with González impressive in the buildup before Itoje splashed over.

Another three points, this time from the left boot of Elliot Daly, who took over the kicking duties, brought Saracens level before Itoje had his second try from close range after a stunning 50:22 from Farrell. Daly struck another penalty to turn the screw before Bristol fluffed another lineout just before the interval deep in Saracens’ 22.

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Saracens showed their defensive mettle after withstanding a seven-minute onslaught near their own line at the start of the second half before pinching a penalty that Daly converted. Itoje’s yellow card for a high tackle on Steven Luatua was quickly followed by one for Ben Earl for collapsing a maul, leaving Saracens under the pump again. All the more so when Harry Thacker was driven over from a lineout.

Another Daly penalty bumped Saracens’ lead out again, however, and they capitalised, too, when Bristol’s lineout problems returned with some fine handling to set Rotimi Segun clear on the right and they had the bonus point with a lovely counterattack, sparked by Daly, and finished by González. “Everything is now on Quins, [we] don’t worry about the table [we] just try and beat them and see what happens,” said Bristol’s director of rugby, Pat Lam. “They like to play, we like to play. We can both strike from anywhere.”

Source: theguardian.com