Mark McCall admitted his Saracens side “maybe don’t deserve to be in the competition” after Saturday night’s 15-15 draw with Ospreys left the back-to-back European Cup champions’ continued participation in this season’s tournament dependent on a collection of coinciding factors in next weekend’s final pool round: a win over Northampton Saints to secure a runners-up position in Pool Two, plus other results going the London club’s way.
McCall was in a glum mood on two fronts, as he also digested the injuries that waylaid Saracens’ entire starting back row, from Jackson Wray pulling out during the pre-match warm-up with a hamstring problem, to Mike Rhodes succumbing to the same affliction during the first half and – as possibly the most damaging and depressing incident of the lot on a cold and dank night in Swansea – the England No 8 Billy Vunipola being forced off at half-time with a suspected fractured wrist.
In the face of the possible elimination of the club who have carried England’s flag in Europe proudly for the last few seasons, the mood in Wales was buoyant, as McCall’s Ospreys counterpart, Steve Tandy, hailed a better than expected effort in this so-called “pool of death”, and promised his team would be positive and not “die wondering” when they go for the win away to group leaders Clermont that would bring a first quarter-final for this Welsh region since 2010.
Vunipola was making only his second appearance after a three-month lay-off, and the popular 25-year-old has endured a horrific 18 months of three operations and lengthy spells on the sidelines with shoulder and knee injuries.
He had made a couple of effective rumbles on the short side of scrums, but also been stripped of the ball in contact and shared in the embarrassment of Saracens’ pack as they were splintered in several scrummages, when his right wrist made a sharp and painful contact with the head of Ospreys’ No 8 Rob McCusker in an attempted tackle near the end of the first half.
McCall correctly admitted Saracens’ scrum needed to “play better”, and the Ulsterman appeared resigned to his 2016 and 2017 cup-winners going no further this season, even though the fifth-round shock results involving Wasps and Clermont showed unpredictable results may yet crop up in next weekend’s concluding pool round.
“This could be out of our hands now,” said McCall, knowing that even a bonus-point win at home to Northampton next Saturday might not be enough to earn a quarter-final place among the three best group runners-up, with Clermont or Ospreys certain to finish top of Pool Two.
“It was a scrappy stop-start game, and we lost the penalty count pretty heavily at scrum time, and it determined where the game was played.
“Billy has an arm injury, which we’ll explore right away. Our starting back row was gone by half-time which was a lot for us to have deal with.
“But ultimately it came down to how we scrummed today and it just wasn’t good enough.
“For us, if other results go against us, we’re out of the competition, and maybe we don’t deserve to be in the competition, because we’ve lost back-to-back games against Clermont [in rounds three and four in December], and drew the game here, and haven’t been good enough during the competition.
“The Clermont home game is the one we’ll look back on, and regret.
“Now it’s important we give ourselves a shot by winning next weekend, and whatever happens in other groups, happens.”
Tandy said he was “unbelievably proud of the [Ospreys] players and the coaching staff for putting together a performance like that.
“When you play a fully-loaded Saracens team you know it’s going to be an arm-wrestle, in greasy conditions, but we stuck to the task and our set-piece was more than about character – it was absolute quality.
“It’s a special feat for the boys and we don’t want it to finish in round six.”
Wales fly-half Dan Biggar matched Saracens’ England hero Owen Farrell kick for kick with five penalties apiece, and Tandy said: “Dan’s got a lot of nerve, I know that much.
“Knocking those goals over in pressure situations is what world-class players do.
“We have to go to Clermont and be really positive because we know they’ll have large parts of the game. They have unbelievable physical qualities and an unbelievable budget.
“But we truly believe we can go to France and play some positive rugby. You can’t go there and cling on and win 6-3 or 9-3. We’re going to have to stress Clermont and score tries.”
Alun Wyn Jones has been Ospreys’ captain through the long, lean period of no quarter-finals in the European Cup since 2010, and the Wales and Lions lock said: “It was a no-brainer to take the draw in the end and still be in contention for the next game.
“We’ve been to Clermont a couple of times – we have lost convincingly, and we have felt a bit hard done by. We’ve had mixed emotions, a smorgasbord of experience there for myself.
“As a package, there’s enough here to do the job, but they [Clermont] will be smarting from their result [losing at Northampton on Saturday] and that would make it no mean feat.”
Tandy praised Ospreys’ starting front row Nicky Smith, Scott Baldwin and Dmitri Arhip, and also touted lock Bradley Davies and wing/full-back Dan Evans for the Wales squad for the Six Nations Championship, to be named on Tuesday.