Their first round meeting at the Sportsground was too close for Mark McCall’s comfort, and with a third successive quarter-final up for grabs, Saracens’ boss adopted the perfect game plan, and his players, directed by outhalf Charlie Hodgson, produced. Eleven tries, eight in the second half, tells the story.
Although Connacht had lived with the English premiership leaders for most of the first half, there were warning signs aplenty. Hodgson, in for Owen Farrell, kept Saracens’ attack short, utilising big men like the Vunipolo brothers to continually punch holes close to the gain line and open up space out wide for David Strettle, Chris Ashton and company.
They restarted deep, disrupted the Connacht lineout, bullied the breakdown, and were fast on their feet. While Connacht held their shape, it was only a matter for time before their hosts burst through and overran them.
After the break and with Nathan White in the bin, brave Connacht collapsed.
It was a far cry from the disciplined performance in France that produced the biggest upset in this season’s Heineken Cup.
And with that win in Toulouse, a bonus-point from Saracens in Galway, and two wins over Zebre, Connacht, for the first time had put themselves in contention for qualification.
But then it went horribly, horribly wrong.
“I’m not proud of our performance,” admitted Lam. “Every rugby player goes through it — we don’t want to, but we are forced to. That’s life and it is what we do from here.
“It shows what Connacht can do when we play as a team. We don’t have the €30m-odd budgets of everyone else, but everything we are trying to do is about teamwork.
“The highlight was Toulouse. The lowlight was Saracens. We can’t dwell on Toulouse and we can’t dwell on this loss, we keep learning and moving on.”
Connacht are not the only team Saracens have demolished this season — they dished out a 51-10 beating to Scarlets and a 49-10 to Leicester, but there was much more riding on this game. To maintain their push for domestic and European honours, they gave Connacht no wriggle room after Dan Parks had kicked Connacht into a 6-5 lead within 20 minutes.
England winger Chris Ashton had opened their try account, created by Hodgson’s deft inside pass to Mako Vunipola. David Strettle capitalised from a quick throw-in to grab the first of his hat-trick, and the turning point came a minute before the break when hooker Schalk Brits touched down from a rolling maul for an 18-6 half time lead.
Within eight minutes Saracens put the game beyond doubt when porous defence allowed Strettle and fullback Alex Goode to run from deep and score.
Connacht’s Gavin Duffy says the province will bounce back.
“We are a better team than that. Someone said ‘we thought these days were behind us.’ I thought so as well, but we have been here before and we will come back— it is just the Connacht way. We have a tight unit, and that is required, otherwise it will be a long season. We are bottom of PRO12, our focus is to get off the bottom.”
Scorers for Connacht: D Parks (2 penalties).
Scorers for Saracens: C Ashton (2 tries), D Strettle (3 tries), A Goode (1try), S Brits (1 try), G Kruis (1 try), C Wyles (1 try), J Johnston (1 try), J Wray (1 try), C Hogdson (1 penalty, 3 conversions).
A Goode; C Ashton, D Taylor, B Barritt, D Strettle, C Hodgson, R Wigglesworth; M Vunipola, S Brits, M Stevens; S Borthwick, G Kruis, B Vunipola, K Brown, E Joubert.
Replacements: R Wigglesworth for de Kock, J George for Brits, C Wyles for Taylor and J Johnston for Stevens (all 50m), R Barrington for M Vunipola (55m), A Hargreaves for Kruis (58m), O Farrell for Hodgson (59m), J Wray for Brown (63m).
Duffy; F Carr, R Henshaw, E Griffin, M Healy, D Parks, K Marmion; B Wilkinson, S Henry, N White; M Swift, C Clarke, A Browne, J Heenan, J Muldoon.
Replacements: J Harris-Wright for Henry (38m), D Buckley for Wilkinson (HT), J Carty for Parks, M Swift for Kearney and R Ah You for White (all 50m), G Naoupu for Heenan and D Leader for Henshaw (59m), P O’Donohoe for Carr (63m).