Guest Blogger Anthony Archer made the trip to Lyon to watch this Champions Cup game, here are his thoughts –
Loyal Saracens fans descended on Lyon at the weekend for Round 5 of the European Rugby Champions Cup, many with the memory of the last visit to this impressive city, the 2016 Final against Racing 92. The welcome was immense at Matmut Stadium de Garland, the hand-me-down venue which Lyon OU inherited when the professional football club Olympique Lyonnais moved to its new stadium, the venue for the 2016 Final.
Greeted with weather akin to a grey day back home, kick-off under the lights revealed a soggy pitch, making scrummaging a challenge. But the fans were not to be disappointed. Arriving as one of three unbeaten teams before the weekend, the power of Irish home teams in the form of Ulster and Leinster dented both Racing 92 and Toulouse. Saracens were to leave as the only unbeaten team in the competition thus far, only too well aware that away wins in European rugby are highly valued.
Lyon threw all they had at the visitors in the early minutes and made some progress over the gain line, making what was to be a rare visit to Saracens 22, and a deft drop goal from fly-half Jonathan Wisniewski gave them an early 3-0 lead. But this was Saracens starting to show the form oppositions fear. Wolfpack defence and high impact tackling meant the breakdowns were much better than in recent games.
Shalk Burger was living on the edge with his trademark seatbelt tackles and one dangerous clear out, immediately prior to Nick Tompkins first try after 22 minutes, went unpunished. Turning to some French hosts nearby, I explained that he is a Springbok, and they graciously seemed to get the point, having some Southern Hemisphere players themselves. But he was lucky, very lucky. It was a period that saw Sean Maitland limp off with an apparent hamstring strain.
The second try of the half for Saracens was credited to Jackson Wray, but was set up by Mako Vunipola who sent him over on the inside through his adroit handling skills. Both he and brother Billy, he playing only his second full game since returning from injury, gave utterly complete performances, Mako deservedly man of the match. With the score 3-14 at half time, the hosts were starting to struggle, forced to overcommit at the breakdown and unable to breach the power and speed of the Saracens defensive line.
Within two minutes of the restart, Tompkins second try was textbook Saracens, coming from a lineout drive. He surged off the back of the maul and saw the space. Mako had reason to boast that he had played a significant part in all three tries by that point. At 3-21 so early in the second half, the only remaining question was the valuable bonus point. It came from Ben Spencer who had come on in the 55th minute during a period of almost comical play when both teams were down to 14 men.
Maro Itoje, back from his knee injury, looked his usual mighty presence but was actually rather understated, and came to fans attention for the wrong reasons when yellow-carded for slapping the ball out of the hand of replacement Charlie McLeod. But no sooner had he gone off when Albertus Buckle joined him in the bin for stamping on Will Skelton.
Tempers by now were flaring somewhat and a period of 14-man rugby ensued, taking in the Spencer try. It was set up by Alex Goode after one of his classic runs. His was a faultless game, utterly reliable under every high ball, unlike Lyon who were often found wanting from the Owen Farrell boot. There was no evidence of Eddie Jones in Lyon but the reports will go back.
With the job done by the end of the third quarter, replacements came to the rescue in the front row, with Christopher Tolofua getting a local welcome. Farrell was replaced by Marcelo Bosch, with Alex Lozowski moving to fly half and injecting some fresh pace. For a moment it looked as if the Saracens machine might rumble on to increase the tally, but at 3-28 there was little point, and it was Lyon who had the final say with a try from Alexis Palisson.
So the boys move back to Allianz Park for Round 6 against Glasgow next weekend, whom they beat 13:3 back in October. A quarter final place is now booked, the only question being the winner of Pool 3. Glasgow will be hard pressed to beat Saracens based on their lacklustre performance at home against Cardiff, but nothing is certain.
Losing to the Warriors with no bonus point puts the teams level, and the pool winner is then a matter of points or tries between them. But let’s be clear: on this performance, no other side in Europe will want to face the Men in Black in the playoffs.