Peter Jackson gets over the gain line, behind the headline
So the condemned men from Skid Row are heading to Dublin for the ultimate stay of execution, one with the potential to make European rugby look more than faintly ridiculous.
Saracens, doomed to more than relegation from the English Premiership as further punishment for recurring salary-cap offences, somehow managed to avoid a Sunday lunchtime implosion.
Stripped of their domestic title, their stellar cast uncertain where they will be playing next month — never mind next season — the Champions’ Cup is all they have left.
Preserving that last hope from the wreckage of their own making seemed too much as they stumbled through a series of largely self-inflicted crises, each one increasing the likelihood of disintegration.
Billy Vunipola breaking his arm for the third time in the first five minutes seemed little more than a minor irritant compared to what followed.
Three Racing tries at the rate of one every five minutes flipped the match upside down. What happened next turned it inside out, Will Skelton’s senseless no-arms assault on a French chin threatening to do for Sarries what Sebastien Vahaamahina’s elbow had done for France against Wales at the World Cup.
If the stuffing hadn’t been entirely knocked out of them first thing on Friday with confirmation of relegation, their hulking Australian lock did his unwitting best to polish off what little remained.
And yet still they found a way to win, as they had done in less trying circumstances of another red card in Swansea the previous week.
Leinster will be more wary than usual, with good reason. Instead of being rewarded with the least difficult quarter-final, they have drawn the shortest of short straws for what will be a colossal Anglo-Irish occasion at the Aviva Stadium on the first weekend in April.
The Six Nations will have come and gone, but for Sarries all that matters from what’s left of their season is Leinster in Dublin. Another win would give them a semi-final on home soil and a real chance of conquering Europe for the fourth time in five years.
In that event, they would be rewarded with the order of the boot, kicked out of next season’s tournament, denied the right to defend the title. Rules are rules, and the rules say that no club outside the Gallagher Premiership, the Top 14 and PRO14 can compete in Europe’s premier tournament.
So the champions would be disqualified from the Champions’ Cup. Such an absurd scenario is made all the more so by the fact that salary caps in European competition are irrelevant, in which event the holders have done nothing wrong.
Despite the imminent danger of their empire coming apart at the seams, such an unprecedented exclusion order will weld another layer of reinforced steel around their motivation.
That will make them all the more dangerous in Dublin just before Easter, an occasion which offers Leinster the forbidding challenge of ensuring that Saracens’ stand is their last in Europe for three seasons.
Seedings and caveats
If the seedings work out as planned, Leinster and Exeter Chiefs will slug it out for the Champions Cup in Marseilles on May 23, a second successive Anglo-Irish final in theory, but not reality.
Number 1 v Number 2 sounds logical enough — except that it has never happened under the current system.
Only once since the advent of the 21st century have the top two gone all the way to the final. Even then, the first seed, Northampton, finished second and the second first — Leinster coming from a long way behind in Cardiff to win the second of their four titles.
More often than not, the highest-ranked qualifier has failed to justify their lofty status. Over the last 10 seasons, only three top seeds have gone the distance — Saracens, twice, Leinster once. Seven other number ones fell short — Clermont (2017), Racing (2015), Ulster (2014), Racing again (2013), Munster (2012), Northampton (2011), and Munster (2011).
As for a winner from outside the home quartet of the last eight, nobody has managed that since Leinster finished up beating Leicester at Murrayfield in 2009.
Getting there meant surviving the most adventurous of journeys, edging past Harlequins at The Stoop when the hosts delved deep into their box of dirty tricks for the fake blood capsules.
By the time Quins’ coach Dean Richards had begun a three-year ban, Leinster had negotiated an ‘away’ semi-final at Croke Park, where more than 82,000 saw them strip Munster of a title which they’ve been looking for ever since.
They are further away from finding it than ever after what was the most anti-climactic of weekends, a routine thumping of the grounded Ospreys adding up to nothing.
Glasgow’s win at Sale had reduced it to a meaningless exercise, forcing Munster to quit sitting on their stool just as Sonny Liston had done long ago in surrendering his world heavyweight title to Cassius Clay.
Leinster’s home quarter-final is their fifth in six seasons — one more than Clermont over the same period. Toulouse will be playing at home in the last eight for the first time in 10 years, since they last won the tournament with Maxime Medard on the left wing.
A decade on, he’s still there, albeit via the bench.
A word (or two) to the wise
The Saracens-Racing match ran to a grand total of 104 minutes despite passing off without any serious injury. The delays were largely over video examination of several incidents, headed by Will Skelton’s inexcusably illegal foul on Racing full back Bryce Dulin. Even so, referee Nigel Owens took painstaking care before reaching for the red card.
“It’s late, it’s no-arms, it gets him (Dulin) on the chin,” the TMO, Ian Davies, told Owens.
“Ok. So we’ve got late, no arms and contact to the chin. That’s correct from what you are showing me?”
“There are no mitigating factors,” Owens tells Skelton and skipper Brad Barritt.
“It’s a red card. Ok….”
By then Skelton was almost out of earshot as if he knew what was coming. Forensic examination of later incidents, a hairline ruling that Racing wing Louis Dupichot had taken the ball into his own in-goal area and the denial of a Saracens try, prompted Owens to make an apology, not for the decision but the time involved.
“I’m sorry it took a bit too long,” Owens told both captains. “But it’s important we get the correct decision.”
In an even more impatient world, it’s worth the wait. As Davies the TMO said: “Bear with me for a second, Nige.”
His comment could just as easily have applied to the fans on the spot and the audience on television.
What goes around, comes around
Harlequins’ fans howled in protest at the shadowy process which led to Test tighthead Rabah Slimani returning from the bench for a crucial five-metre scrum two minutes from time.
Where was Hercule Poirot when you needed him?
In his absence, Irish referee George Clancy had no option but to take the Clermont physio at his word — that substitute tighthead Sipili Falatea was unfit to continue.
For those who remember the ‘Bloodgate’ scandal, the incident was a case, perhaps, of ‘what goes around, comes around’.