Saracens stay unbeaten as Chris Ashton secures late draw at Scarlets
It is still 21 months since Saracens were beaten on European duty but this was anything but a relaxing Sunday lunchtime in west Wales. Not until the final play of a heavy-duty game, with 14 men on the field, did they manage to deny the Scarlets a hugely satisfying English scalp, extend their unbeaten record in the to 14 matches and guarantee their presence in the last eight.
While the will feel some regret, having seen off Toulon on home turf this season, there also has to be admiration for Saracens’ refusal to bow to the seemingly inevitable. The previous week they also battled back to draw with Exeter having gone down to 14 men with injuries continuing to strip them of several key figures. There is an abundance of character or competitiveness in this squad, as they keep underlining.
They will still need to defeat Toulon at home this weekend to secure a home quarter-final but, by the end of March, George Kruis, Brad Barritt, Alex Goode, and at least one Vunipola brother should be back to reinforce their collective challenge. If Chris Ashton can maintain the poacher’s knack that earned him two crucial second‑half tries here, will feel a successful defence of their title remains more than feasible.
It will not concern them overly that a chance to surpass Munster’s record of 13 successive European victories disappeared into the grey Celtic skies. When the impressively accurate Dan Jones knocked over his fifth penalty to put his side 22-15 ahead with six minutes left a local red-letter day seemed extremely likely, a sense heightened when Will Skelton was sent to the sin-bin for attempting to slap a theatrically-minded James Davies.
Saracens seldom seem to know when they are beaten and roused themselves for an 18-phase pounding of the Scarlets’ line. With no time left to kick a penalty to the corner, a show‑and‑go by Owen Farrell sliced a last-gasp hole through the middle of a weary home defence and there was Ashton, the sharpest of supporting actors, lurking to touch down his 33rd try in 51 European games, equalling the great Brian O’Driscoll.
Only Toulouse’s Vincent Clerc has scored more in this tournament and Ashton, who is due to join Toulon next season, will fancy overhauling the Frenchman at some point. For a player who has had to spend 13 weeks on the sidelines this season after being banned for biting, simply being back on the pitch is enough. His Test days may now be behind him but he remains a reliable danger on foreign fields.
A draw had not seemed the likeliest outcome for long periods, with Saracens being hassled at the breakdown and failing to satisfy the French referee at the scrums. Apart from an outstanding performance by Alex Lozowski in the unfamiliar role of full-back and an effervescent performance from Schalk Brits, there was a slightly disjointed feel to the visitors’ first-half effort with Lozowski’s lovely try‑creating flick to Nathan Earle in the 13th minute proving a rare flash of inspiration.
With the entire Wales coaching team in attendance before the Six Nations squad announcement on Tuesday, Saracens received no joy from the home tight five and Jones’s boot ensured a 9-5 Scarlets’ lead at half-time, helped by a couple of misses off the tee from Farrell. When Ashton made a defensive fumble which led directly to Scarlets increasing their lead in the second half, a modest-sized crowd also began to detect the possibility of English blood.
Good approach work from Schalk Burger and Lozowski at the other end did allow Ashton to make amends shortly afterwards but, within three minutes, the forceful Scott Williams had surged on to Aled Davies’s long ball to put the Scarlets back in charge at 19-12. By this time the action was hotting up, Skelton losing control of the ball when a try looked certain and Lozowski, after another fine break, throwing a hasty forward pass to Ashton after the wing had demanded the ball despite the presence of several nearby defenders.
Ultimately it was to be Ashton’s day after all. “Both his tries were just the sort of tries we are accustomed to seeing him scoring with him sniffing the opportunity,” said his director of rugby, Mark McCall. “They were outstanding support lines. It is what he has been doing for years and years. It was good to see it was still there despite the fact he hasn’t played a lot of rugby this season.”
Scarlets, unsurprisingly felt very differently. “It felt like we lost even though we drew,” Scott Williams said. “I thought we dominated them physically but they probably had that bit of experience at the end that won them the game.”
Scarlets L Williams; McNicholl, Parkes (J Davies, 67), S Williams, S Evans; D Jones, A Davies (J Evans, 67); R Evans (W Jones, 71), Owens (capt; Elias, 54), Lee (Kruger, 62), Ball (Price, 78), Beirne, Shingler, J Davies, Barclay (Boyde, 67).
Try S Williams. Con D Jones. Pens D Jones 5.
Saracens Lozowski; Ashton, Bosch, Tompkins, Earle; Farrell (capt), Wigglesworth (Spencer, 67); Barrington (Tamositele, 50), Brits (George, 50), Figallo (Koch, 50), Itoje, Hamilton, Rhodes (Skelton, 56), Burger (Brown, 71), Wray.
Tries Earle, Ashton 2. Cons Farrell 2. Pen Farrell.
Sin-bin Skelton 77.
Referee A Ruiz (Fr). Attendance 7,491.