After a disappointing loss at Toulouse, Saracens still held their Heineken Cup fate in their own hands. My day started very early with a trip to The Hive the new home of Barnet FC; wrong shaped ball I can imagine you thinking! Well, this is the home now of a team who for my sins are a real passion; London Broncos. That’s been a heart-breaking passion to have at times over the last 18 years, but we support who we support come hell or high water. It had looked as if I was going to be a team down this summer; but it seems Broncos have a team and they certainly have a nice new home. So my pre-match preparation was signing up to be a Broncos member, my trip to Allianz Park was only a matter of miles down the road so the early kick off was pretty convenient for me. No pre-game cake and tea this time though, I had to make do with a Kit Kat Chunky and tea on the move! I know how to eat healthily!
Connacht Rugby arrived bringing a fair few of their fans who were in fine fettle; Saracens had visited them on a Friday night in round one of the Heineken Cup and found the Irish team to be tricky opponents; with the final score finishing at Connacht Rugby 17 Saracens 23. The two teams had very different fates in round two with Saracens losing at Wembley to Toulouse by a mere point and Connacht beating Zebre in Italy by 27 points. Saracens beat poor Zebre by 29 in Italy in round three and Connacht caused one of the upsets of the round in beating Toulouse in France by a slim 2 points. Toulouse turned the defeat around in Ireland winning by a comfortable 28 points; Saracens posted 64 points to Zebre’s 3 at Allianz Park. Round 5 matched Saracens with Toulouse; in spite of riding high on a spell of good premiership wins, the points went the way of the French. Connacht again beat Zebre with a margin of 17 points that must have felt like a relief to the Italian team. So a bonus point victory didn’t feel a certainty by any means as the teams took to the pitch.
Dan Parks kicked off for Connacht and the men from Ireland were on the end of the ball, attacking with some flair, Parks kicked for the corner but mis-judged. It was to be Parks who got the first shot at points after a Richard Wigglesworth kick was charged down; Duncan Taylor pulled a player back of the ball and the whistle was blown for the penalty. Parks stepped up and duly converted to put Connacht ahead. Saracens were awarded the next penalty as the scrum collapsed, Charlie Hodgson, starting at fly half, kicked and missed – that is a phrase to be oft repeated during this report! Alex Goode returned the kick out and the ball was well taken by Duffy, but he was held up until his team mates took the maul to the ground, so put in at the scrum for Saracens. Billy Vunipola came away with the ball and Saracens played the ball across the pitch, Hodgson was involved twice and I have to say he is second to none at times with the ball in hand, he put Chris Ashton into the corner for the home teams’ first try. And, Hodgson kicked and missed the conversion.
I’m going to have to be careful how I write this report; I can see if I’m not very careful I could end up with a novel! So I’m going to be picky on the facts I report. With 16 minutes on the clock Hodgson kicked a penalty……. To the corner, Billy V had a good go at knocking several Connacht players out of his way but knocked on as he was being pushed into touch; Brad Barritt gave away a relieving penalty and Parks kicked well over the half way line. Schalk Brits was clearly having a funny turn and picked the ball up illegally in a ruck right in front of the referee; a strange moment on the TV coverage as the commentator extolled the handsome looks of Brits, I don’t disagree, but, odd! Parks converted the penalty to put Connacht ahead with a quarter of the game played.
Saracens were awarded a penalty after the Vunipola boys had moved forward in what can only be described as an incredibly powerful and positively scary way. This time, Hodgson put three points on the board. Saracens scored their second try after some great work firstly by Alex Goode who seemed to have his twinkle toes on for the game, then by Charlie Hodgson who threw a great dummy to pass the ball to Brits who had Duncan Taylor on his shoulder, Taylor was virtually over the line but he passed the ball to David Strettle who strolled in to score. Now on the kick, I think you may have guessed, Hodgson…… missed. A hugely controversial moment in the game happened after Saracens had won the ball from a Connacht lineout, Brad Barritt tackled Duffy and finding himself trapped he also found himself stamped on, not just once several times including to the face by Nathan White. I’m not a fan of the crowd shouting for a card but on this occasion at the game I felt a red should have been brandished, watching it again on the TV I am still 100% the colour shown, yellow, was the wrong colour. The officials didn’t hesitate on Friday night when Ian Evans received a straight red, we have to have consistency in the game, and without wanting to sound corny we have to stamp this kind of play out of the game before we see a serious injury!
Tempers were flaring as the game approached half time, Saracens were clearly unhappy with the card and some of the play in the ruck. With a man down Connacht went on the attack but to no avail as Saracens were awarded a penalty. Hodgson kicked for the corner and Saracens drove the ball forward after Ernst Joubert caught the ball. The maul rolled forward and the try was awarded to Schalk Brits. Handbags then ensued with much tumbling, pushing and pulling. After taking an age, after conferring with the TMO, when all the action had happened right under the eyes of the referee and his touch judge, the captains were advised to go away and have a bit a chat and make sure the aggro didn’t carry on. A sensible response, but did it really have to take so long! I haven’t mentioned the conversion, that’s because Hodgson missed it! The score at half time was Saracens 18 Connacht 6 no bonus point try happening, yet.
An amazing run by Alex Goode right through the middle of the Connacht line saw him pass to Duncan Taylor ,who has come on in leaps and bounds this season, taking his chance in the absence of Joel Tomkins, Taylor provided a well-timed pass to again send his wingman David Strettle in for the try. The conversion? Missed! However the bonus point was scored and a place in the quarter finals booked for Saracens with less than 4 minutes of the second half played. Connacht were returned to their full complement as White returned to the field, without wishing to labour the point he was a very lucky man, it’ll be interesting to see what further punishment he faces! Alex Goode having been provider backed himself for the next try as he threw a dummy, ran across the pitch and scored, for poor Charlie, in the corner. This time the ball hit the post, that made one successful kick from 7! The forwards had clearly had enough of the pretty boys scoring, Brits included in the pretty category, and George Kruis neatly placed the ball over the line after Billy V had again stormed forward. This time Charlie Hodgson SCORED! He showed good humour as the crowd cheered ironically.
There were a couple of incidents for the TMO after replacement second row for Saracens Alastair Hargreaves left a trailing foot to take out Carr, it was I would have said a trip, and sorry Saracens fans, he was lucky to have stayed on the field. Stupid play when Saracens were leading by some margin. The second a potential late tackle on Goode was deemed fairly to be ok. Two replacements Jamie George and Chris Wyles combined for the next try, as George made a great run and passed as he was falling to Wyles. Alex Goode took the kick and missed! Owen Farrell had come on as a substitute but seemed to be in some trouble and Charlie Hodgson quickly found himself on the field again. The commentators are suggesting a blood injury, but he looked very wobbly to me. Nothing was really going right for Connacht as they attempted to play the ball from their own half; Jackson Wray turned the ball over and appeared outside Alex Goode to score. Hodgson was back on kicking duties which I’m sure delighted him, this try he converted to cheers. The next try came from a rolling maul after a Saracens lineout, James Johnston taking the ball over the line, a bit more work for James and he could well match his brother Census. The conversion – Missed.
With the score at Saracens 52 Connacht 6 you’d think Saracens might take their foot off the pedal, but the avalanche of tries wasn’t finished. A delighted David Strettle ran in the 10th try after taking a pass from Hodgson and kicking the ball on. Strettle is another player who goes from strength to strength with the team from North London. The conversion was a hard one for Hodgson and he again hit the post. To give credit to Connacht they played the ball when they were awarded a penalty but knocked on and Saracens played on. Ernst Joubert played winger as he took a pass from Hodgson, Barritt ran on his shoulder and passed the ball to Chris Ashton who scored with the inevitable swan dive. That got cheers from the home crowd, but as Sonny Bill Williams discovered in the RL World Cup, one of these days he’ll drop that ball and there will then be a cacophony of told you so’s.
So, a good day at the office for the home team, the number of kicks missed must be of concern and I can see there will be an awful lot of practice going on in the next few weeks. There was an incident which will take, as it should some of the headlines form the game, stamping on the face should always be a red in my book. Saracens travel to Ulster as top try scorers in the Heineken Cup rounds; they will have an uphill battle to beat the Irishmen on their home turf. But in knock out rugby nothing is impossible!