McCall: 'Won't blame Barcelona for Bristol struggle'
REACTION: Saracens director of rugby Mark McCall was adamant the after-effects of a squad bonding trip in Barcelona were not behind his side's struggle to see off Bristol in the English Premiership on Saturday.
The reigning English and European champions eventually prevailed 27-9 at their Allianz Park home ground in north London but only after falling behind 9-6 at half-time, with former Wales star Gavin Henson kicking three penalties for basement club Bristol.
It was all a far cry from Saracens' commanding European Champions Cup semi-final win away to Munster in Dublin last weekend, a victory they promptly celebrated with a 36-hour jaunt in Spain.
But McCall insisted the Barcelona break had not been behind a poor display.
"No, I think that's clutching at straws. It was just a bad performance," he said. "We had a good training week this week. The players were back on Monday afternoon. We just played poorly,"
Saturday saw former Scotland captain Kelly Brown and South African scrumhalf Neil de Kock play their last matches for Saracens before entering retirement, with Petrus du Plessis, set to join London Irish, ending his time with Sarries by scoring two tries.
The only way Bristol can be spared the drop is if either Doncaster or Ealing win the second-tier Championship as both clubs would be blocked from promotion because they do not meet Premiership ground criteria.
The closing weeks of the season promise to be a worrying time for British and Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland, who will hope all those selected in his 41-man squad for the upcoming three-Test tour of his native New Zealand remain fit.
England lock Courtney Lawes, one of Gatland's picks, went off after just 20 minutes as his Northampton side suffered a 12-36 loss away to Exeter.
But Saints boss Jim Mallinder tried to allay fears over Lawes's fitness by saying: "Courtney, I think is OK.
"He carried the ball and went down on his shoulder/neck, so he is sore, but we are hopeful for next week," added Mallinder, whose team were well-beaten by second-placed Exeter as they suffered a fourth straight defeat.
Saturday's other Premiership match saw Leicester thrash Sale 41-18 to stay on course for a top-four finish.
New Zealand flyhalf Nick Evans marked his final home match for Harlequins before retirement by scoring 22 points in a 32-13 win over Wasps at the Stoop on Friday.
Victory maintained the London club's bid to qualify for next season's European Champions Cup ahead of next weekend's regular-season finale at Northampton.
Harlequins director of rugby John Kingston hailed former All Black Evans by saying: "Nick is a legend at Harlequins...Knowing him, you'd have a bet on him performing like that in his last game here."
But Quins' win over Wasps, which denied the Premiership leaders the chance to guarantee a home play-off semifinal, was overshadowed by the sight of their England scrumhalf Danny Care having to be replaced because of a stomach muscle injury in the first half.
Care has been selected in the England squad for the two-Test tour of Argentina in June and Red Rose coach Eddie Jones was among the crowd who saw the Quins captain go off in the 26th minute.
"Danny has an oblique injury and struggled to run it off. He's probably stretched it and may have pulled it," Kingston said. "There are eight days until the next game so we'll have to see how he scrubs up, but we don't know at this stage."
Friday's other match saw Newcastle also maintain their challenge for a Champions Cup place with a 16-14 win at home to Worcester.