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Star-studded Saracens shipwrecked by Cornish Pirates’ set-piece power | Rugby union

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They would definitely have been dancing in the sunlit streets of Penzance, honest. Even without a crowd, though, this was one of the all-time great Cornish rugby days, more than worthy of a sea shanty or two when the local pubs can reopen. For anyone who has ever felt English rugby’s mandarins should pay more attention to those outside the Premiership, it was similarly sweet. Cornish Pirates 25 Saracens 17. Just let that scoreline sink in for a while.

What an advert for the Championship it was and what a resounding message it sends to those who would chop the cash-strapped second tier off at the knees.

After the final whistle, with the sun sinking over Mounts Bay, the Pirates’ co-coach Alan Paver described it as “an iconic moment” in terms of what it said about both his team and the league. “People have got to respect what the Championship’s about. We’ve got to keep it going and there’s got to be investment in it. Today just shows that we can do it, that we are valuable to rugby.”

His opposite number, Mark McCall, struck a different tone, describing it as “a very difficult, sobering day”, but freely acknowledged the Pirates’ set-piece superiority. Saracens’ tight-head, Vincent Koch, has a World Cup winner’s medal in his collection; suddenly he was being shoved backwards by a front row sponsored partly by a local sweet shop.

Several of this Saracens lineup have also won European titles; here they looked bang average whenever the big home captain, Tom Duncan, had the ball.

At times the only thing keeping Saracens in the game was their defensive organisation. Otherwise the Pirates, 10-8 down at half time, were properly good value and mostly had the visiting scrum on toast.

Jay Tyack, Dan Frost, Marlen Walker, Fa’atiga Lemalu, John Stevens, Josh Caulfield, Danny Cutmore, once of the Saracens academy, and Duncan are not household names but they gave their opponents a going over.

Manu Vunipola (left) and Jackson Wray of Saracens look dejected after the final whistle.
Manu Vunipola (left) and Jackson Wray of Saracens look dejected after the final whistle. Photograph: Matt Impey/REX/Shutterstock

It was not even as if Saracens were being ambushed by an in-form team. This was the club’s first league game for a year and their preparation comprised one warm-up game against Jersey last week.

“The guys weren’t match fit,” said Paver, the architect of the Pirates’ eye-catching scrum dominance. “They were probably good for 60 minutes but it was about sheer want and passion.”

Which is precisely what makes rugby, on days like this, so wonderfully compelling. Who cares whether you hail from the big city or how big your name is?

“It’s going to be an eye-opener for them,” said the club’s chief executive, Rebecca Thomas, before kick-off. “No one enjoys coming to the Mennaye.”

As it turned out the weather was gorgeously benign but Saracens still ran aground. “Welcome to the Championship,” said Paver. “It is the badlands. If you get it wrong on the day 23 men will beat you. That’s the beauty of it.”

It was a joyous throwback for those who enjoy rugby in its purest, most unspoilt form. Cornish old-timers who have seen them all come and go believe it ranks as the most striking result this evocative old ground has seen in the professional era. It is necessary to rewind to the 1950s, when top Welsh sides like Cardiff were beaten, to find anything with similar national resonance.

The Pirates’ three try-scorers, Duncan, Dan Frost and Rhodri Davies, and their goal-kicker, Luke Scully, certainly deserve more respect than has been emanating lately from the Rugby Football Union and Premiership Rugby.

As the Pirates’ chief benefactor, Dicky Evans, has made clear, moves to ringfence the top division and switch off the funding to Championship sides disregards the potential benefits the league has to offer.

In France, for comparison’s sake, the top three leagues are set to benefit from a bumper new Top 14 TV deal worth three times the Premiership one. Here, there is only short-sightedness and, as recently as Friday, not a hint of regret at the 75% funding reduction this season.

“The money subsidised losses and was not a good investment for the game,” said an RFU spokesperson.

Really? As the shipwrecked Saracens now understand, English rugby’s world does not begin and end in the Premiership.

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