STONEX STADIUM –– Saracens captain Owen Farrell booted his side into a guaranteed place in the Premiership semi-finals with three matches to spare during Sunday’s 38-22 win over Exeter, while nudging their opponents closer to the precipice of missing the play-offs for the first time in seven seasons.
Farrell converted seven of his eight shots at the posts, while his smooth line-break and left-handed pass to Alex Lewington made a fine try for Sean Maitland that set the tone for a second-half comeback by the five-time former champions, who have roared straight back into title contention after spending last season in the second division in a salary-cap punishment.
A try by Elliot Daly in the first half, followed by two more by Nick Tompkins and Ben Earl after Maitland went over to put Saracens in second place at the Premiership table, with 77 points.
Sixth-placed Gloucester, who slipped up at Bristol on Friday night, could match that points total during the three remaining rounds of regular-season fixtures, but the Kingsholm club can only reach 14 wins at best, whereas Saracens already have 15 in the bank .
So Saracens can now concentrate on securing a home tie in the play-offs in June, with a side issue of the European Challenge Cup quarter-final at Gloucester in a fortnight’s time.
In the league, Sarries are now four points behind leaders Leicester, with Harlequins looking good in third – although the reigning champions must still negotiate a tricky run-in against Northampton, Gloucester and Exeter.
Overall, the play-off race could extend down to the ninth-placed Sale Sharks, who have Newcastle, Wasps and Bristol to play.
Exeter, though, are on the brink of slipping from the wondrous heights of their six straight play-off finals since 2015, following their original promotion in 2010.
Injuries ruled out England internationals Jack Nowell, Sam Simmonds, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Jonny Hill and Harry Williams in this rematch with their perennial rivals, while Henry Slade made a rare start at the fly-half in place of the demoted Joe Simmonds.
And when Saracens had a strong wind behind them in the second half, Exeter’s season-long struggle to reproduce their close-range finishing efficiency haunted them yet again.
“I don’t think we’ve ever caused Saracens that many attacking issues before. It felt like we could have scored six, seven, eight tries – but we haven’t, ”Exeter boss Rob Baxter said.
“It’s been the story of our season. We’ve been held up a couple of times, we’ve been turned over in the five-meter zone two or three times and we had a couple of weird refereeing decisions. ”
But Baxter added a resolute take on the relative decline, saying: “If finishing fourth or fifth is a reset year for us, a hell of a lot of clubs would take that. There have been clubs who have spent 10 years bumbling along the bottom as a reset. ”
Saracens trailed 15-10 at half-time, after Daly’s training-ground try off a line-out was overhauled by Exeter scores for Sam Skinner and Olly Woodburn, stressing the home defense through multiple phases.
In another incident, Saracens’ Alex Goode cleverly intercepted near his own line, and although Exeter were sure they had driven the full-back over, the referee Craig Maxwell-Keys said otherwise and gave a scrum to Sarries.
After half-time Exeter were within sniffing distance of the Saracens goalline three times without scoring, until replacement scrum-half Stu Townsend went over in the last two minutes.
That lack of a try-scoring bonus point could be enough to deny them a play-off spot, although Baxter, who will give his players nine or 10 days off around the next bye week, before they finish with Bristol away and Harlequins at home , said: “It wouldn’t surprise me if we’re in a position where two wins would see us through to fourth spot.”
Farrell drew warm praise from Sarries’ director of rugby, Mark McCall.
“His passing and his kicking and his offloads – all of that was phenomenal, really,” McCall said of Farrell, who has featured in only six premiership matches all season after an ankle injury saw him miss the Six Nations for England.
“Emotionally, he was incredible, and he drove the comeback.”
Premiership play-off permutations
There are four Premiership play-off places up for grabs, with three weeks of the season remaining. League leaders Leicester have already secured their spot, while Saracens are also over the line.
But who will claim the remaining two places? Here i looks at what each team needs to make the top four…
3rd – Harlequins (72pts)
With a 10-point lead over fifth place in Exeter, it would take a monumental collapse at this point for Quins not to make the play-offs. However, Harlequins are due to face all three of the teams directly below them. A couple of slip-ups here and they could crash out of the top four.
- Remaining fixtures: Northampton (a), Gloucester (h), Exeter (a)
4th – Northampton (63pts)
A long way back from Harlequins and currently top of the top-four chasing pack are Northampton. Saturday’s comeback win over Bath and other results going their way means the Saints are in the driving seat to claim the last play-off spot. However, they’re still to face Quins and Sarries before the end of the season – and defeats here could cost them.
- Remaining fixtures: Harlequins (h), Saracens (a), Newcastle (h)
5th – Exeter (62pts)
Exeter’s fall from grace this season isn’t as bad as the plunge some teams have endured down the years – but even the pedigree of Rob Baxter may not be enough to save them here. Exeter crucially have one fewer game available compared to those around them, and so even two wins to end the season might not be enough. The final-day showdown with Quins is one not to miss.
- Remaining fixtures: Bristol (a), Harlequins (h)
6th – Gloucester (62pts)
While Exeter may not have enough games remaining to salvage their play-off hopes, Gloucester arguably have too many. George Skivington has guided his side into the Premiership Rugby Cup semi-finals, which means squeezing in a clash with Worcester on Wednesday. Gloucester, who threw away the derby with Bristol on Friday in the dying stages, has a tricky run-in too.
- Remaining fixtures: Bath (h), Harlequins (a), Saracens (h)
7th to 9th – London Irish, Wasps and Sale
Mathematically these three teams can all still make the play-offs but in reality they’re likely too far away from that mark now. London Irish (58 pts) only have two games remaining like Exeter, and must also play in the Cup on Tuesday. Beat Wasps and their play-off hopes could linger for another week.
The Wasps (57 pts) must beat both London Irish and Sale, and hope to claim victory against a well-rested Leicester side on the last day of the season. Even then, it might not be enough to see them into the final four.
As for Sale (56 pts) they have arguably the “easiest” three remaining fixtures in Newcastle, Wasps and Bristol, but also have a European Champions Cup quarter-final with Racing 92 to prepare for. And with the gap so far between them and fourth place, who wouldn’t prioritize European glory over the domestic ladder?