Saracens 57 Leeds 21
Saracens have one foot firmly in the Zurich wild card final after tearing Leeds Tykes to pieces in the first leg of their play-off at Vicarage Road.
Wayne Shelford’s side ran in six stunning tries and fly-half Andy Goode gave a kicking masterclass by converting all of them and adding five penalties to secure a 36-point advantage going into Sunday’s second leg at Headingley.
The complicated qualification rules mean the Tykes will still get a place in Europe next season if Wasps beat Bath in the Parker Pen Challenge Cup final on May 25.
And that would appear to be their only hope as Saracens – in danger of being relegated until they trounced the Sharks on the final day of the regular season - have discovered a rich vein of form.
The first five scores came from long range with Ben Johnston, Tom Shanklin, Darragh O’Mahony, Kris Chesney and Tim Horan touching down before Kevin Sorrell rounded things off with his dart down the blindside in stoppage time.
All Leeds could manage in reply were three consolation scores – one of them hotly disputed – from Winston Stanley and Chris Hall.
Saracens had the first leg sewn up after 33 minutes. Johnston’s solo effort from half-way was followed by Shanklin’s diagonal sprint into the corner and a long-range effort from O’Mahony down the left.
Goode supplied three conversions and three penalties as the hosts went 30-7 in front.
The chief culprit in the Leeds defence was full-back Diego Albanese. He was left flat on his back by Johnston, gave away field position for the second try when his chip was intercepted and was beaten on the outside for the third before trudging off nursing a head wound.
The only relief for his team-mates was a 10th-minute strike on the counter from Stanley and Hall’s 40th-minute effort. Both were converted by Gordon Ross to leave Leeds trailing 30-14 at the break.
French prop Christian Califano put lock Chesney in for a fourth Saracens try after an outstanding swarming attack with Goode converting and adding a penalty to take Saracens 26 points clear early in the second half.
The former Leicester fly-half made it nine out of nine when he landed his fifth penalty on the hour after the Tykes had rallied with a controversial score of their own.
Stanley squeezed into the corner and appeared to lose control of the ball attempting to touch down but referee Roy Maybank waved away the protests and Ross converted from wide on the right.
It mattered little though, as Horan celebrated his last home appearance before retirement by cutting inside two defenders on half-way and shrugging off a tackle before accelerating away under the posts.
Goode’s converted and completed his perfect evening’s work of 11 successful kicks in injury-time after Sorrell barged through another weak tackle on the right at the death.