Gloucester 12 Saracens 21
Saracens director of rugby Mark McCall is prepared to sacrifice their chances of more European glory as he admitted this season’s priority was now avoiding relegation.
The under-fire Gallagher Premiership champions overcame the most troubling of weeks to beat Gloucester 21-12 at Kingsholm.
The visitors, who are appealing against a 35-point deduction and a fine of more than £5 million (€5.8 million) for breaching salary cap rules, ground out a deserved victory thanks to tries from Nick Tompkins and Ben Earl, with Manu Vunipola adding three penalties and a conversion.
Saracens failed to turn up for the 2019-20 season launch of the Heineken Champions Cup in Cardiff on Wednesday, the day after the punishments were imposed, but McCall did face the media on Saturday and revealed he was likely to field a youthful-looking team in the defence of their European crown.
“Despite the appeal, we have to plan for the worst-case scenario so to avoid relegation is now the priority ahead of European rugby,” said McCall, whose side will play in Pool 4 along with Munster, Racing 92 and the Ospreys.
“We are not planning on breaking up our squad and most of the England players were in on Tuesday as they love the club, but the conversations with them may be a bit different now as some of our younger players deserve a chance in Europe.
“I haven’t read too much in the papers and we can’t control what people are saying, but today I think it’s one of our best wins as I can’t believe how switched on the players were.”
McCall felt his side “took toughness to a whole new level” as he described the Kingsholm crowd as “quite quiet”.
There was still plenty of anger directed towards the visitors from the stands, though, with the Saracens team greeted by a chorus of boos as they took to the field and a group of home fans in The Shed waving fake money.
But Saracens coach Alex Sanderson felt his side were galvanised by the reception.
“We accept the hate we are going to get, but we think it is misplaced and misguided,” he said.
“We used the anger directed at us to fuel our motivation and, whilst it won’t last for too long, we’ll use the negative energy to inspire us as, at present, emotions are running very high.”
Tom Marshall and Lewis Ludlow scored Gloucester's tries, with Billy Twelvetrees kicking a conversion, but Gloucester head coach Johan Ackermann accepted his side were second best.
“They have a DNA that works for them and they were better than us despite having to play under considerable pressure,” he said.
“We started well but didn’t get the points and after that we lost the scrum and lineout battle and couldn’t get our game going.
“Defensively they were tremendous and tactically they out-kicked us, so we have to take the defeat on the chin as you need to be at your best in this competition and we weren’t.”