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London Welsh 17 Saracens 68

16 May 2015
London Welsh 17 Saracens 68

Chris Ashton’s four-try performance was a fitting contribution to help Saracens secure their Aviva Premiership Rugby top four spot with a comprehensive triumph over London Welsh.

The flying winger crossed three times in the space of five breathless second-half minutes to add to an earlier effort, while Billy Vunipola, David Strettle, Mako Vunipola, Alex Goode, Juan Figallo and Charlie Hodgson all had their say with tries.

Saracens’ impressive points tally on the day was enough to see them overhaul Exeter Chiefs’ lead heading into the final round of fixtures and leapfrog the West Country club to snatch fourth spot – and set up a semi-final clash with Northampton Saints.

The Exiles started well courtesy of efforts from Nic Reynolds and Chris Elder, but they were unable to clinch their first Aviva Premiership Rugby win of the season and send Tom May off in victorious fashion.

Given the undeniably close circumstances heading into the match, there was little surprise to see Saracens steam out of the blocks at the Kassam Stadium, a series of attacking penalties resulting in an early yellow card for Welsh lock Matt Corker.

The hosts were immediately punished for their indiscipline, No.8 Vunipola applying the finishing touch from an inexorable driving maul, Owen Farrell slotting the tough conversion.

While the spotlight seemed fixed on the visitors’ desperate need for a victory, the Exiles were looking for a fairytale ending of their own, with Aviva Premiership Rugby veteran May looking to go out on a high – and he provided a timely moment of magic.

The centre carved through the Saracens defence and stepped well before sending midfield partner Reynolds under the posts for a seven-point score of their own.

The reprieve was short lived, however, with Strettle finishing superbly in the left corner from a scrum, the fleet-footed winger notching his seventh Aviva Premiership Rugby try of the season.

Welsh enjoyed a sustained period of pressure just before the half-hour mark as they camped on the Saracens line, and their efforts were eventually rewarded through three points from the boot of Elder when the visitors infringed on the floor.

Sarries appeared to move clear once more when Mako Vunipola powered over and ensured both of the brothers got on the scoresheet, before the home side moved back to within touching distance immediately, Elder gathering the restart on the run to sprint home for the try.

But Ashton finished another driving maul in almost identical fashion to Vunipola’s earlier score as the half drew to a close to give Mark McCall’s men a 26-17 lead to mull over during the break.

And the visitors picked up where they left off with a quick score after the interval, Alex Goode tapping a quick penalty and racing clear to score a wonderful try, another Farrell conversion increasing the daylight between the sides and doing Saracens’ play-off hopes no harm.

Jacques Burger missed a scoring opportunity when he failed to gather Farrell’s pass with the whitewash in sight, but replacement Figallo was able to use his physical presence to barge his way over for another score.

Ashton finished a fine flowing move by dotting down under the posts for the visitors’ seventh score as they continued to search for a points total big enough to secure them an Aviva Premiership Rugby semi-final spot.

And the Sarries flyer certainly wasn’t finished, finishing two more tries in the space of a couple of minutes, both converted by Farrell, before he was denied a fifth for a forward pass.

On a day when May and Mark Cueto were saying goodbye to the league, another experienced head in fly-half Hodgson proved his continuing worth to notch his side’s tenth try late on, a final salvo that made completely sure of Saracens’ spot in the semi-finals – and a trip to Franklin’s Gardens.

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