Doncaster Knights 15 Saracens 50: Knights hold their heads high after defeat to star-studded Sarries
When Owen Farrell missed his opening three conversion attempts at Doncaster Knights’ Castle Park you wondered what the onlooking British Lions coaches Gregor Townsend and Steve Danby must have been thinking.
There is a sentence few people could ever expect to read – and for myriad reasons.
England captain Farrell was in South Yorkshire on Sunday for his first club game since last September.
Doncaster were not overly interested in that, of course, nor his bid to show Warren Gatland’s watching Lions scouts that he his fully recovered from a calf strain, his last game coming in the Six Nations.
After winning their opening five fixtures of the Championship season, Steve Boden’s side were out to show their excellent start was no fluke.
Admittedly, a sixth successive win did not materialise, but no one expected it to; that would have been less likely than Farrell missing all five of his attempts at goal.
Still, in a 50-15 defeat, Doncaster did demonstrate plenty of the characteristics that have become a common trait in Boden’s debut campaign in charge: grit, determination and a willingness to go until the very end.
To underline that point, the Knights scored their two tries as late as the 76th and 78th minute.
They were also down to 14-men for the first of those after James Mitchell was sin-binned for a deliberate knock-on.
Jack Davies scrambled over after some good work by the pack close to the line and then – with Saracens seeing Sean Refell yellow carded – the hosts scored a wonderful try from deep inside their own half.
Charlie Foley picked up a loose ball to find Jack Spittle, the winger who combined well with James Newey down the left before receiving the ball back and scorching over.
By this point, Farrell had already left the field, having been replaced in the 58th minute, fellow Lions Mako Vunipola, Jamie George and Maro Itoje joining him not long after.
They had done their work, eventually helping Saracens through the gears to keep set up an intriguing game against leaders – and main promotion rivals – Ealing Trailfinders next weekend.
Doncaster had started impressively, though, seeing Nick Tompkins spill Sam Olver’s kick-off to allow them chance to exert some early pressure. Later, fly-half Olver demonstrated the confidence in the Knights camp, boldly dummying past an onrushing Alex Lewington before launching a clearing kick.
Kyle Evans, the impressive Welsh winger, produced the first of many searing runs from back field and, up front, captain Matt Challinor was relishing his battle with England and Lions lock Itoje.
Olver actually put Doncaster in front with a tenth minute penalty.
However, Lewington soon got Saracens up and running with the first of their eight tries, flying in at the right corner after a slick backline move.
Farrell missed his kick, though, and Itoje was forced to collapse a threatening maul as the home side powered back.
Farrell got his accuracy right to dink in a grubber for Sean Maitland to cross before Itoje added a third try from close range.
The sleight Olver found himself one-on-one with England hooker George down the right flank but he was up to the challenge. Saracens would not let up, though, and their clinical edge was there again when Michael Rhodes added a fourth try, Farrell finally getting a conversion attempt right.
The England fly-half had a few shaky moments, including one high tackle, and was also left winded by an Evans challenge.
He recovered to comfortably carry on in his first Championship outing for the relegated former European champions and it will be a box ticked for him as he looks towards that Lions tour of South Africa this summer.
Saracens led 22-3 at the break but that was extended when Aled Davies scored the first of his brace in the 49th minute.
His second came soon after following a midfield first phase move involving Farrell and Daly. Tom Woolstencroft also got in on the act before the hosts had their late flourish.
Doncaster were on the attack once more via the excellent Evans, only to see the ball poked out of the ruck to gift Saracens’ Tom Whiteley the last score.
Doncaster Knights: McBryde; Evans, Foley, Edwards, Spittle; Olver (Newey 68), Warr (Mitchell 50); Cade, Hunter, Foster (Foster 42), Challinor (Britton 50), Sexton (Smith 55), Joyce, Graham, Volpi.
Saracens: Obatoyinbo; Lewington, Daly (Whiteley 68), Tompkins. Maitland; Farrell (Manu Vunipola 58), Davies (Morris 64); M Vunipola (Woolstencroft 58), George (Barrington 58), Koch, Itoje (Clarey 68), Swinson, Rhodes, Refell, B Vunipola.
Referee: Ian Tempest (RFU).