(Reuters) - European superpower Saracens suffered a stunning setback in their first taste of life back in the second tier English championship on Saturday as they were went down to a 25-17 defeat at Cornish Pirates in their first game of the new season.
Saracens, four-times Premiership champions and three-times European Cup winners in the last five years, were relegated last season as a punishment for multiple salary cap breaches.
Although the majority of their international players were absent on Saturday, they still fielded a team boasting 165 test caps - including South Africa's World Cup-winning prop Vincent Koch. That was widely considered to be more than good enough for them to begin their campaign with a straightforward victory at the Penzance ground they last visited for a cup game in 2003.
Saracens, who flew from London to Cornwall by private jet, led 17-15 early in the second half after tries for current and former Scotland internationals Sean Maitland and Tim Swinson and one for Alex Lewington.
The Pirates, however, playing their first competitive game in almost a year, were always in the game through tries by Tom Duncan and Dan Frost and the goalkicking of Luke Scully and they deservedly took the prized scalp when Rhodri Davies touched down after a superb counter-attack.
Pirates co-coach Alan Paver described the victory as an iconic moment.
"People have got to respect what the Championship is about," he said of the league that has seen its funding slashed by the Rugby Football Union. "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.
"The guys weren’t match fit today, they were probably good for 60 minutes, but it was about sheer want and passion."
Saracens have plenty of time to get back on course in the shortened 10-round Championship season which culminates with a two-legged playoff to decide who goes up, but they may want the likes of Owen Farrell, Maro Itoje and Jamie George back in club colours more quickly than they might have imagined.
Saracens head coach Mark McCall had warned that his team would have a target on their back as every Championship side would rise to the occasion against them, and he was proved emphatically right.
"It was a really tough, sobering day," he said.
The big shame for the home side's fans was that none were allowed in the stadium to witness the famous victory - and the club's website crashed after the game as those supporters sought reaction to a match that was available to watch only on a pay per view live streaming service.
(Reporting by Mitch Phillips, editing by Ed Osmond)