|Gloucester (5) 12|
|Tries Marshall, Ludlow Con Twelvetrees|
|Saracens (16) 21|
|Tries Tompkins, Earl Pens Vunipola 3 Con Vunipola|
Saracens silenced the jeers of the Gloucester fans as they recorded a 21-12 win at Kingsholm, in their first game since being given a 35-point deduction and £5.36m fine for salary cap breaches.
The European and English champions ran out to a chorus of boos as some Gloucester fans waved fake £50 notes.
Chants of “same old Sarries, always cheating” rang loud around Kingsholm for large parts of the game.
But despite being without a vast number of their England World Cup finalists – they put on an impressive display to get their first win at Kingsholm since October 2015.
A clinical performance in attack and defence from Mark McCall’s under-strength side saw them smother Gloucester and move second in the Premiership pending the outcome of an appeal against their punishment.
Less famous stars shine bright
Saracens went into the game without England captain Owen Farrell and his World Cup team-mates Jamie George, Maro Itoje, Elliot Daly, George Kruis, and Mako and Billy Vunipola as they restored their body clocks to UK time after the best part of two months in Japan.
They were still able to call on Scotland’s Sean Maitland, former England scrum-half Richard Wrigglesworth and experienced squad players like Will Skelton, Nick Tompkins and Jackson Wray, while new signing Jack Singleton started on the bench, as did England’s late World Cup call-up scrum-half Ben Spencer.
It was Wrigglesworth who set the tone in the first half – his accurate kicking and experienced leadership helping a Saracens side who had ranging levels of experience.
Manu Vunipola, the young cousin of England’s Mako and Billy, kicked his side into an 18th-minute lead, before Nick Tompkins’ try increased the gap to 10 points – Danny Cipriani’s sliced clearance kick set up the field position and Vunipola’s superb drop of the shoulder creating the opening for Saracens to send over Tompkins over from close range.
Within five minutes Gloucester had pulled a try back – Marshall sprinting down the right, precisely chipping over the onrushing Saracens defence and kicking he ball on before diving into the corner.
Gloucester indiscipline saw them give away two more penalties that Vunipola dispatched from close range as the visitors went in 16-5 up at the break.
Saracens impress to hold out hosts
The second half was just three minutes old when there was a long stoppage for a nasty-looking leg injury to Saracens loose head Ralph Adams-Hale – the 22-year-old was making his first Premiership start but needed oxygen as he was stretchered off under heavy medical attention.
But Saracens did not need long to increase their lead – having had a rolling maul try disallowed for obstruction, Saracens made no mistake with the very next play as Ben Earl was forced over by the pack.
Gloucester struggled to find a way through Saracens’ constrictive defence – Ollie Thorley’s pacy run after an hour was repelled while Corne Fourie was held up an inch short of the line.
It took 15 minutes of almost solid Gloucester pressure before the visitors finally cracked – Lewis Ludlow being forced over from close range as Gloucester’s fans found their voice and turned their anger on their visitors once again.
But it was Saracens who almost had the last laugh as Ben Spencer knocked on under pressure as he dived for the corner in the final minute.
Saracens may have left the ground to the sounds of “I Fought the Law” by The Clash from the tannoy and accusations of being cheats from the fans, but they showed their strength in depth against a strong Gloucester side – whether that squad has been fairly or unfairly assembled is still up for debate.
Why were Saracens punished?
Saracens were found guilty of breaching the Premiership’s £7m salary cap after an investigation into business partnerships between chairman Nigel Wray and some of the club’s top players, including England captain Owen Farrell, and Mako and Billy Vunipola.
A 35-point deduction and £5.36m fine has been handed down to the reigning Premiership and European champions – although it is currently suspended pending an appeal.
The affair has turned Saracens into the pariahs of the rugby world.
Exeter’s chairman Tony Rowe – who has seen his side lose the last two Premiership finals to a Saracens side found guilty of “cheating” the system – said their punishment was not harsh enough and they should be relegated.
Former England captain Chris Robshaw said Saracens had put rugby union “in a very dangerous place” and that they were “cheating to a certain extent”, while Sale director of rugby Steve Diamond – who was in charge at Saracens from 2004 to 2006 – said rugby union would “bankrupt itself” if clubs are not stopped from breaching salary-cap rules.
Saracens ‘handled the pressure’ – post-match reaction
Gloucester head coach Ruan Ackermann:
“First of all you have to give credit to Saracens, it’s 15 men going out on the pitch and what you ask is for accuracy and that’s exactly what they did.
“They were accurate in those scrums, they were accurate in the opportunities from the ball; defensively they were tremendous and tactically out-kicked us.
“They handled the pressure for the week well and you have to give that 23 players credit on how they dealt with it on the field – the best way is to play your best rugby and be physical, and they did it.”
Saracens director of rugby Mark McCall:
“Over the past four weeks the squad have been amazing. Everybody knows how many players we have unavailable and the three performances before this one were grit and full of toughness, and I think we took grit and toughness to a whole new level today and it was a performance we can be proud of.
“I thought it was quite a quiet crowd today all things considered, but that’s down to how the players performed.
“The decision [salary cap sanctions] came out and on Tuesday we talked about how everybody felt about it. There’s a lot of questions that we need to answer internally about different scenarios, but we said from the get-go that all we can do is get on with the rugby and get on with getting the best out of this group.
“I couldn’t be more proud of a group of staff and group of players who genuinely came together this week and they showed that unity on the field today.”
Gloucester: Woodward; Marshall, Harris, Atkinson, Thorley; Cipriani, Braley; Hohneck, Marais, Balmain, Clarke, Grobler, Kriel, Ludlow, Morgan (capt).
Replacements: Fourie, Rapava Ruskin, Ford-Robinson, Ackermann, Polledri, Simpson, Twelvetrees, Banahan.
Saracens: Gallagher; Maitland, Taylor, Tompkins, Lewington; Manu Vunipola, Wigglesworth; Adams-Hale, Gray, Lamositele, Skelton, Isiekwe, Clark, Earl, Wray (capt).
Replacements: Singleton, Barrington, Wainwright, Kpoku, Hunter-Hill, Spencer, Lozowski, Segun.
Referee: Craig Maxwell-Keys.