And so life begins in a Premiership with relegated champions. This is not the first time Saracens have lost this season, but by the end of this defeat they looked what they were, representatives of a club with its heart ripped out.
“Without question this has been the most difficult week,” said Mark McCall, Sarries’ director of rugby. “When the original decision was made, there was a strong feeling within the group that we weren’t going to get relegated, but the news last Friday has meant a lot of anxiety about people’s personal situations and what they’re going to do next.
“It has been quite difficult to focus on a game as big as this against an opposition who played as well as Quins did. Perhaps, after 19 weeks, this was just a bridge too far.”
Harlequins stepped up to perform the ritual execution, relishing each and every cut as they ran six tries past their erstwhile nemesis, inflicting on Saracens their biggest defeat in four years.
Saracens were vulnerable anyway, with so many players in international camp, but Quins, missing several themselves, albeit through injury more than Test call-ups, took advantage to move into the top six. With relegation decided so early, many have bemoaned the end of any drama in the bottom half of the table, but the race for Europe is live. This win moved Quins up three places in one fell swoop.
A masterclass from Marcus Smith set Sarries’ heads spinning, ably supported by Alex Dombrandt. The scoreboard rattled with a pleasing rhythm on an otherwise cold and wet afternoon. The opposition, though, could not rouse themselves to any obvious signs of anger at recent developments. How they manage to motivate themselves from here on in is anyone’s guess, no matter the names on the team sheet.
Premier Rugby are yet to decide how to handle the rest of Saracens’ season. Do they continue to gather points with 35 of them deducted; do they just remain on zero? And what about the points gathered by others for the rest of the season? Those who have already faced the enraged beast have copped some fearful hidings. Will that beast sheathe its claws, now that its fate is decided? As others pursue their various goals, those who have not yet faced Saracens might be seen to have a distinct advantage over those who have and have lost.
That said, this time of year always sees a different Saracens from usual. Those myriad internationals are away anyway. Harlequins, as vocal and supposedly as strategic in their scheming as anyone against Saracens, were largely passed over by Eddie Jones. Smith and Dombrandt were among those omitted from England’s initial Six Nations squad. They burst into this match as if that slight had bitten.
In the second minute, Dombrandt gathered at the back of a lineout, released Danny Care, another out of favour with Jones, who burst clear and exchanged further passes with Dombrandt, before running in the first try. Within 10 minutes, Smith joined Dombrandt in stating his case. His wicked goose step helped set the latter away down the left with Gabriel Ibitoye, and he next put in a cross-kick, from which Elia Elia made hay. Cadan Murley was through to the line from that exchange.
At the start of the second quarter, it was 19-0 to the home side, Smith again with the outrageous trickery, the punchy Paul Lasike with the link for Murley to streak home again.
Saracens, who had lost their most obvious point of reference, captain Brad Barritt on the day with a groin strain, looked suitably lost, spilling the ball on those rare occasions they had possession of it in the dispiriting rain. But they have a tendency to hang on in the fight, whatever the personnel, and they duly pulled a try back on the half-hour, Alex Lozowski picking a line to the posts after a penalty to the corner and a series of drives.
It would not have been unheard of for Quins to find some way thence towards defeat, but no wobble was forthcoming. The usual suspects stepped up. Dombrandt found a soft shoulder (is there any other kind when he is on the charge?), Smith chipped to the line and Ibitoye won the race. Quins had the bonus point.
Another try followed four minutes later to put the contest to bed, when Lasike went over from Elia’s offload.