Director of rugby Mark McCall admitted it took all of the grit and determination in Saracens’ locker to hold off Sale Sharks in their European Rugby Champions Cup clash on Saturday.
Sarries headed north to the AJ Bell Stadium knowing that nothing less than a victory would suffice if they wanted to have any hope of making it out of a Pool that includes Clermont and Munster.
But their Aviva Premiership Rugby rivals Sale almost played the role of party poopers to perfection as tries from Magnus Lund and Andrei Ostrikov gave McCall’s men a real fright.
But scores from Owen Farrell and Billy Vunipola, plus some expert game management from the former in slotting a penalty and a drop goal late on, held off an energetic Sharks side to eventually triumph 19-15.
And after being dropped by England during the autumn internationals, it was the form of Farrell that most impressed his director of rugby.
“Owen Farrell's a brilliant young player. He comes back to the club and he understands that he's not played much rugby this year,” he said.
“With Charlie Hodgson off injured, it was wonderful to have someone of Owen's calibre to see us home.
"We know how difficult this place is to come and we've got to do the business against them again next week.”
Defeat for Sale means their chances of progressing to the knockout stages are now over and director of rugby Steve Diamond admitted his side needed to start turning performances into points.
“We could have won in the last five minutes and we probably lacked a bit of composure,” he said.
“We were hammering at their line, getting penalty after penalty and probably in the Premiership they would have got a yellow card, but it wasn't to be.
“It's difficult to be pleased with a performance like that in the 'Group of Death' as it's called.
“We can put up a good show but being close isn't good enough and we should have won the game.”
Elsewhere defending Aviva Premiership Rugby champions Northampton Saints impressed in claiming a bonus-point win in Treviso that keeps them well in contention to progress to the knockout stages.
Saints ran in six tries in all in a 38-15 win – Alex Waller, Samu Manoa, Ben Foden, Luther Burrell and George Pisi all crossing the whitewash in addition to a penalty score.
Stephen Myler also added four conversions and forward coach Dorian West was impressed with his side’s effort.
“When you come to these places your forwards have got to be ruthless, you have to work hard and take the energy out of their defence,” he said.
“We knew it was going to be tough, especially early on. They are a good side with some really good players.
“Racing Metro had come here and left without a bonus point so we knew we would have to be at our best if we were going to get maximum points.
“We worked really hard in the first half, especially the forwards, to take the legs out of their pack and that created some space later on. That's exactly what we thought would happen and we have got to be pleased with our game plan.”
In the European Rugby Challenge Cup it was less good news for London Irish who fell to a 24-14 defeat to Cardiff Blues.
Having begun the competition with back-to-back wins Brian Smith and his side were optimistic about their chances of progressing and the director of rugby insists this defeat has not rattled them too much.
“We believe we can still win this pool,” he said.
“We had a good points difference going into the game, it would've been nice to squeeze a bonus point out of this but we have a chance to level it up next week.
“We're not where we wanted to be but we knew this was going to be like a mini test series. The key thing for us is to prepare well and give ourselves a good opportunity.
“We got our tactics right. They were keen to establish a drive platform against us but we managed to dilute that to a certain extent.
“It's disappointing not to get any points tonight but we've got to dust ourselves off and get ready for next week.
“We knew we were up against a quality defence. We just didn't get the job done tonight.”
Sale 15 Saracens 19
Tries: Lund, Ostrikov
Tries: Farrell, B.Vunipola
Penalties: Hodgson, Farrell
Drop goal: Farrell
Referee: Leighton Hodges
Treviso 15 Northampton Saints 38
Tries: Nitoglia, Carlisle
Tries: Manoa, Waller, Foden, Burrell, penalty, G.Pisi
Conversions: Myler 4
Referee: Peter Fitzgibbon
Cardiff Blues 24 London Irish 14
Tries: Smith, L.Williams, Dacey
Conversions: Anscombe 3
Tries: Cross, penalty
Conversions: Geraghty 2
Referee: Alexandre Ruiz
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