<p style="margin: 0px 0px 15px; padding: 0px; border: 0px; outline: 0px; font-size: 12px; color: #666666; font-family: Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 16.796875px;">Rarely has the European Challenge Cup looked and felt more like the Heineken Cup. In 2009/10, Saracens have had to be content with a place in supposedly the junior competition in European rugby, but there is nothing second class about a group including Castres (current leaders of the French league), Toulon (lying third in the French league), Rovigo (third in the Italian league) together with the leaders of the Guinness Premiership.
The campaign started with a home win over the Italian side, but defeat to Jonny Wilkinson and company in Toulon left Saracens facing what amounted to a knock-out match in Castres on Friday evening.
Under pressure, against a top European team, far from home, Saracens produced one of their finest performances of the season.
After an even start, Castres pitched camp within five metres of the visitors’ line, mounting a seemingly endless barrage between the 22nd and 34th minutes of the match… scrums, lineouts and penalties followed, but the thin red line held firm, successfully withstanding wave after wave of attack. At one stage, Castres surged over the line, and were held up.
Moments before half-time, remarkably, Castres led only 6-3, but one more transgression ceded a third penalty and, at the interval, the form team in England appeared in trouble, trailing 9-3 at the break.
The second half might have been plucked from a Fezboy’s dream.
Glen Jackson, returning to the starting XV after a break, began to control the game, sending impeccable punts spiralling into the corners. The Saracens forwards increased the workrate and began to grind out territorial domination; one penalty reduced the deficit, another made it 9-9.
With 20 minutes remaining, Andy Saull and Schalk Brits entered the fray and, within moments, the hooker was exploding from the vanguard of what is becoming a signature Saracens rolling maul. The ball was recycled to Saull on the burst, and the future England flanker scored.
The visitors took control, squeezing the life out of the home team, and their domination was properly reflected when the irrepressible Brits seized upon a looped pass, intercepted and scored beneath the posts. Jackson kicked the conversion, and Saracens were leading 23-9.
Captain Steve Borthwick said afterwards: “That was a special effort by all the players and coaches. To win the second half 20-0 away to the leaders of the French league – that’s a performance that deserves real respect.”