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Saracens 34-17 Harlequins: Ben Earl scores a hat-trick as Sarries reach Premiership final

 This Saracens team does not go quietly into the night.

In their first season back in the Gallagher Premiership after relegation in 2020 for salary cap breaches, Mark McCall’s men are now just one win away from their sixth domestic title.

No-one likes us? We don’t care. That seems to have been the mantra for Saracens who ended defending champions Harlequins’ hopes of back-to-back titles.

Ben Earl (pictured) celebrated celebrates after scoring Saracens’ third try on Saturday 

MATCH FACTS  

Saracens: Goode 6.5; Malins 6 (Lozowski 67,5), Daly 6, Tompkins 8, Maitland 6.5 (Taylor 71,6); Farrell (capt) 6.5, Davies 7.5; M Vunipola 7.5 (Mawi 71,5), George 8, Koch 8.5, Itoje 8.5, Swinson 6.5 (Isiekwe 45,7), McFarland 6.5 (Christie 66,6), Earl 9, B Vunipola 7

Replacements not used: Pifeleti, Clarey, Van Zyl

Harlequins: Jones 6 (Northmore 54,5.5); Green 6, Marchant 7, Esterhuizen 8, Murley 7.5; Smith 8, Care 7; Marler 6.5 (Kerrod 75,5), Walker 6.5 (Gray 78,5), Collier 6.5 (Louw 57,5), Symons 7.5, Tizard 7.5 (Jurevicius 68,5), Lewies (capt) 8, Evans 6.5 (Gray 37-43,5) (Lawday 54,5), Dombrandt 7

Replacements not used: Gjaltema, Allan

Scorers

Saracens

Tries: Earl 23, 41,79, Tompkins 35, Davies 53

Cons: Farrell 36, 42, 80

Pens: Farrell 9

Harlequins

Tries: Dombrandt 3, Care 19, Murley 66

Con: Smith 20

Referee: Luke Pearce (RFU)

Star man: Ben Earl (Saracens)

 

In the same week he was named the Premiership’s player of the year, the outstanding Ben Earl led the charge for Saracens with a hat-trick.

This was a Premiership semi-final of superb ferocity as two full-strength teams packed full of England internationals laid it all on the line. In the end, Saracens were not to be denied.

They had to do it the hard way too, coming under early pressure and suffering three second-half yellow cards. In both instances, their defence was outstanding.

The only downside to a wonderful game was more inconsistent officiating around the high tackle rule – something which continues to blight the sport.

All four of the game’s sin bins were for shots to the head.

In a ringfenced division in which the lack of relegation has taken much of the jeopardy away from proceedings, both teams knew on this occasion everything was on the line.

The pre-match atmosphere reflected the importance of the clash. It was hugely impressive. A large StoneX Stadium crowd ramped up the tension. It felt like a supreme occasion was to come.

 First, there was a sobering dose of reality. The ground held a minute of silence in memory of Tiffany Youngs – wife of former Leicester, England and Lions hooker Tom – who passed away this week.

It was a reminder of rugby’s place in life, yet the sport has so much capacity for good and a humdinger of a first half did not disappoint. Saracens edged it 15-12 despite spending large periods of the opening 40 under pressure. They benefited from a Jack Walker yellow card.

Tabai Matson’s Quins are known for their enterprising running rugby, but their often unheralded front five went toe-to-toe with Maro Itoje and Co in the opening quarter and got their rewards.

 

Andre Esterhuizen is tackled by Saracens' Owen Farrell (right) and Jamie George (bottom)

Andre Esterhuizen is tackled by Saracens’ Owen Farrell (right) and Jamie George (bottom)

Alex Dombrandt was immediately driven over for the opening try. It came after Harlequins had disrupted Saracens line-out ball, forcing Aled Davies to kick out on the full.

Davies wasn’t helped by a poor pass from Mako Vunipola. Marcus Smith couldn’t convert.

It was ferocious stuff. Harlequins counter-rucked with intent. Joe Marler and Itoje collided like two rutting wildebeest. Both packs also came to blows early on.

Smith couldn’t convert and his opposite number and England team-mate Owen Farrell put Saracens on the board with a penalty.

Owen Farrell makes a pass while under pressure from Jack Walker

Owen Farrell makes a pass while under pressure from Jack Walker

The game swung this way and that, Farrell having to settle for three points after Sean Maitland just failed to collect his long pass. Then ‘Magic Marcus’ conjured his latest trick.

From a midfield scum, the Harlequins pack shunted Saracens back to earn a penalty advantage and give Smith the chance of a free play. How the playmaker took advantage.

Smith danced past a poor tackle attempt from Farrell who could only attempt to swing an arm and then breezed past Davies. All of a sudden, a rabbit had been pulled from a hat.

Drawing the last man and sending Danny Care to the line was Smith’s easiest job of the lot. He improved the try and then threw himself into the giant Billy Vunipola.

Smith, unsurprisingly, came off second best in that particular physical skirmish but still got up smiling. This is a man who relishes the heat of battle.

Saracens were second best and needed to respond. Up stepped Earl as he smashed through two tackles to score in brutish fashion.

Harlequins' Cadan Murley celebrates after scoring his team's third try of the day

Harlequins’ Cadan Murley celebrates after scoring his team’s third try of the day 

Farrell missed what should have been a simple conversion when put under pressure and remained at the centre of the action. First, he stepped back and saw a drop goal attempt miss.

Then, after the England man collided with Harlequins hooker Walker and looked to offload, the ball fell loose and everyone seemed to stop.

Joe Marchant ran to the line, but the try was rightly checked by Luke Pearce. The end result was no try and a yellow card for Walker for tackling Farrell – who was left bleeding – high.

With a man advantage, Saracens then struck through Wales centre Nick Tompkins and Farrell converted. Walker was perhaps lucky not to see red.

Walker’s nose looked in all sorts of bother at half time.

‘This is exciting,’ mouthed Harlequins assistant Adam Jones as he returned for the second period.

He wasn’t wrong, but Jones’ mood wasn’t upbeat for long.

Earl waltzed to the line for his second after Saracens spread the ball right through Elliot Daly and Alex Goode. This time Farrell nailed the touchline conversion.

A 10-point deficit means nothing to Quins, but now it was their turn to respond. Cadan Murley danced down the wing and Andre Esterhuizen’s ambitious offload went forward.

Saracens’ fourth try was the game’s deciding moment.

Farrell sent Wasps-bound prop Vincent Koch steaming through a gap on his last home appearance and the supporting Davies was given an easy run to the line.

Farrell’s mixed day with the boot continued with another failed conversion.

Harlequins were then given a lifeline. Daly was sinbinned for tackling Smith high, but the visitors made a right hash of the subsequent attacking position.

Dombrandt’s frustration boiled over. The physicality of the contest went from the sublime to the ridiculous. Esterhuizen achieved what many have found to be impossible by flattening Billy Vunipola.

Alex Dombrandt's (R) frustration boiled over as physicality of the contest went from the sublime to the ridiculous

Alex Dombrandt’s (R) frustration boiled over as physicality of the contest went from the sublime to the ridiculous

The crowd loved it. Pearce wasn’t quite as happy and checked the tackle, then yellow carding the Saracens man to leave the hosts with 13. Even then, Quins couldn’t win their line-out.

Nick Isiekwe stole their possession, but Matson’s side did eventually go over through Murley with Harlequins boasting numbers out wide from a scrum.

Smith, crucially, couldn’t convert. His team still went hell for leather in a bid for yet another comeback although this time there was to be no semi-final miracle even though Saracens replacement Alex Lozowski also saw yellow for a high hit on Marchant.

Saracens will face either Leicester or Northampton in the Twickenham final and the truth is they deserve to be there with Earl’s third, converted by Farrell, sealing the win.

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