Gloucester smashed Saracens at sun-baked Kingsholm to move within one victory of their first GUINNESS PREMIERSHIP title.
The west country giants cruised into next Saturday’s Twickenham final against Leicester or Bristol by scoring seven unanswered tries and claiming their biggest victory of the season.
Having finished top after the 22-game regular league season, Gloucester underlined their championship credentials through touchdowns from Peter Richards, Luke Narraway, Anthony Allen, Andy Hazell, Mark Foster and Christian Califano.
The home side also claimed a penalty try, while full-back Willie Walker kicked 15 points.
Saracens, buoyant following their highest league finish since 2000, were outclassed, and three Glen Jackson penalties provided scant crumbs of comfort.
Gloucester last reached the Premiership final in 2003, but after topping the league by 15 points, they slumped 39-3 to Wasps as the Londoners claimed the first in a hat-trick of title successes under Warren Gatland.
The Cherry and Whites though, appear much more the real deal these days, and it will take a huge effort from their Twickenham opponents to prevent silverware from going to the west country.
They went into battle without injured back-row forwards Jake Boer and James Forrester, so Narraway packed down at number eight alongside South Africa-bound England flankers Hazell and Peter Buxton.
Saracens, who had secured a play-off place for the first time, made three changes up front as prop Nick Lloyd, hooker Shane Byrne and flanker Paul Gustard all started following a 22-7 defeat against Worcester last Saturday which meant the Warriors stayed up.
Redevelopment work at Kingsholm meant a reduced 9,000 capacity – and both teams changing in portakabins – but the atmosphere was still at its traditional fever-pitch as Gloucester looked to preserve their 12-month unbeaten home record against English opposition.
Hazell, Gloucester skipper Marco Bortolami and Saracens wing Dan Scarbrough all suffered knocks during the opening exchanges, but the visitors only had themselves to blame for conceding an opening 11th-minute score.
Gloucester fly-half Ryan Lamb’s clever kick caused panic in the Saracens defence, and as wing Foster sniffed a try, he was tackled without the ball by Thomas Castaignede.
Referee Wayne Barnes sensibly consulted video official Geoff Warren, resulting in a penalty try that Walker improved, although Castaignede was fortunate to escape the additional punishment of a yellow card.
Jackson, recently acclaimed players’ player of the year by his fellow GUINNESS PREMIERSHIP professionals, opened Saracens’ account through an 18th-minute penalty, but balance of play remained with Gloucester.
Lamb’s mixed and matched his kicking game superbly, and a steepling ball deep into Gloucester’s 22 almost created a second try.
Wing Iain Balshaw climbed to catch the ball, but he was cynically taken out in mid-air by opposite number Kameli Ratuvou, who escaped with a yellow card, while Gloucester were also denied a possible second penalty try.
Balshaw continued after receiving treatment, and the home side laid siege as half-time approached.
Saracens, a man down, struggled to defend a five-metre scrum, and Gloucester exploited their advantage when Narraway fed Richards, who skipped inside number eight Ben Skirving – in a defensive wing position instead of the absent Ratuvou – for a simple try.
Walker slotted the extras, putting Gloucester within sight of Twickenham as they led 14-3 at half-time.
And there was more gloom ahead for Saracens with Ratuvou still off, as the home side conjured their third try on 46 minutes.
Quickly recycled possession proved sufficient to pin Saracens’ defence on the back foot, and Hazell delivered a scoring pass to Narraway, who galloped over unopposed before Walker’s conversion took Gloucester 15 points clear.
Saracens were hanging on, but they self-destructed when scrum-half Neil de Kock rifled out an ambitious pass inside his own 22 from the restart after Jackson completed his penalty hat-trick.
None of his Saracens team-mates could react quickly enough, and after the ball bounced off lock Iain Fullarton’s shoulder, Allen gathered a simple rebound to score.
Lamb scythed through Saracens’ defence and sent Foster in for try number five, before Walker continued his immaculate goalkicking performance by landing a fifth conversion, taking Gloucester 38-9 ahead.
Then Hazell pounced on a loose ball and sprinted clear to claim try number six, again converted by Walker.
Gloucester had scored 31 points in 19 minutes, blitzing Saracens beyond recognition, and there was still time for substitute prop Califano to add a seventh touchdown.