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Saracens hold off Harlequins fightback to celebrate return to Premiership final
Saracens overcame the defending champions in an intense semi-final despite being reduced to 13 men at one stage during the final quarter.
Saracens completed an immediate return to the Gallagher Premiership final after showing their steel to withstand a late Harlequins onslaught in a 34-17 victory at the StoneX Stadium.
In their first season back in the top flight after being relegated for repeated salary cap breaches, they overcame the defending champions in an intense semi-final despite being reduced to 13 men at one stage during the final quarter.
Ben Earl, the Premiership’s newly-crowned player of the season, led the charge with a hat-trick of tries while Nick Tompkins and Aled Davies also crossed in a determined performance that was orchestrated brilliantly by Owen Farrell.
A bloodied Farrell finished with his head wrapped in a bandage as evidence of the ferocity of a stormy London derby that possessed the spite of previous meetings and delivered fully on expectations.
Quins endured a particularly-damaging period when hooker Jack Walker was sin-binned for a dangerous tackle in the third quarter, leaking two converted tries in a dramatic shift in balance.
The defending champions fought desperately to overcome the 27-12 deficit but, even when yellow cards to Elliot Daly and Billy Vunipola reduced Saracens to 13 men, they could not take full advantage.
Saracens lost a third player to the sin-bin when Alex Lozowksi also departed for a high tackle – the match’s four yellow cards were for the same offence – but their resilience swept them to a deserved win.
Apart from the fight shown in the closing stages, they also had to roll up their sleeves early on as Quins took a quick lead from Alex Dombrandt at the end of an imposing line-out drive.
Farrell settled home nerves with a penalty after a promising attack by Saracens, who were then forced to weather a mini siege on their line.
South Africa centre Andre Esterhuizen was influential as Quins camped themselves in the 22, but the source of their second try was the genius of fly-half Marcus Smith.
Saracens’ problems began at the scrum when a shunt backwards saw referee Luke Pearce’s arm go up, but advantage was played and Smith reacted incisively by breaking a poor tackle by Farrell, evading Davies and Alex Goode before feeding Danny Care to score.
The exhilarating pace continued when Earl scrambled over after waves of attacks as Saracens issued an impressive response to slipping further behind.
A key moment arrived just after the half-hour mark when Joe Marchant had a try disallowed for knock on before Walker was sin-binned for a high tackle on Farrell, who streamed blood as a result.
Pressure was now building on Quins’ line and once Maro Itoje had almost crossed, an overlap was ignored as Farrell slipped the ball out of a tackle for Tompkins to touch down.
More evidence for the tide turning materialised when Dombrandt dropped the kick off to the second half and Saracens pounced, working the ball to Earl to grab his second.
Walker was now back on the pitch but it made no difference as the home side ran in a fourth try, Farrell teeing up Vincent Koch for a bust through midfield with Davies present to finish.
Daly was sin-binned for a high tackle on Smith and Vunipola followed him into the stands for a dangerous challenge on Esterhuizen as tension mounted amid a concerted Quins fightback.
Saracens were down to 13 men and they were breached by Cadan Murley in the 66th minute and just as Vunipola returned, Lozowski departed for the same offence with seven minutes left.
They had the final say, however, when Earl completed his hat-trick from a line-out drive, ending Quins’ reign as champions.