Saracens’ comeback 29-20 victory against Northampton Saints may have sealed a European Champions Cup semi-final with fellow Aviva Premiership Rugby side Wasps, but Mark McCall believes his charges were lucky to progress.
Owen Farrell’s early penalty had given Sarries’ the lead at Allianz Park, but it was Jim Mallinder’s side who played the better and despite spurning several gilt-edged try-scoring opportunities, led 10-6 at half-time.
Saints – along with semi-final opponents Wasps – are one of two sides to beat Sarries at home this season.
And it looked as though McCall’s outfit may succumb to their Northampton hoodoo once more until second-half scores from the recently returned Chris Ashton and consistent Chris Wyles put paid to the visitors.
Though McCall was disappointed with his side’s uncharacteristic sloppiness, he acknowledged that the ability to win while playing below their own extremely high standards was perhaps a positive.
"In the first half we didn't play anywhere near to the level that we can," he said.
"Maybe we played not to lose a bit and we were lucky to be only four points down at half-time.
"These games are different, there's a lot at stake. This was the first game of the season where it's on the line and if you lose you're out of the competition.”
Saints’ Jamie Elliott spilled the ball while dotting down and Stephen Myler looked nervy as he skewed two first-half penalty attempts and though they led at half-time, the four-point margin did little to reflect their dominance and ambition with ball-in-hand.
And McCall knows Sarries got out of jail against the 2000 European Champions and that they have much to work on if they are to overturn a Wasps side that put 64 points on them at Allianz Park in Aviva Premiership Rugby round 12.
"Give Northampton a lot of credit because they put us under all sorts of pressure at the breakdown,” the former Ulster coach said.
"Good teams find a way of getting the job done. We were nowhere near our best and the last few weeks in the Premiership were almost too easy for us in a way.
"We know we'll have to improve a lot of things against Wasps in the semi-finals."
Mallinder was without internationals Tom Wood, Kieran Brookes and England’s Grand Slam winning captain Dylan Hartley.
And though he was pleased by the way the likes of Ben Nutley showed up, Mallinder suggested the lengthy sick list took its toll as the game wore on.
“Maybe if we had our international players the final quarter would have been different," he said.
"For 60 minutes we did pretty well. I was really pleased, our defence was outstanding and helped by our outstanding back row.
"We looked to attack them, not run into brick walls. We're disappointed to lose, but proud of the performance.”
Saracens: Goode (Ransom, 77); Ashton, Taylor, Barritt (Bosch, 77), Wyles; Farrell, Wigglesworth (de Kock, 40); Vunipola M (Barrington, 77), Brits (Saunders, 77), Du Plessis (Lamositele, 77), Itoje, Kruis, Wray (Rhodes, 52), Fraser (Hargreaves, 77), Vunipola B
Northampton Saints: Foden (Mallinder, 47); K Pisi, G Pisi (Hanrahan, 71), Burrell, Elliott; Myler, Fotuali'i (Kessell, 69); Waller (Ma’afu, 61), Haywood (Marshall, 77), Hill (Denman, 69), Craig, Day (Matfield, 61), Lawes, Nutley (Paterson, 66), Harrison
Tries: Ashton, Wyles
Conversions: Farrell 2
Penalties: Farrell 5
Tries: Pisi, Lawes
Conversions: Myler 2
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