A very strange looking fixture was announced by Saracens during 2013, in the middle of the season the Natal Sharks were to arrive for what would be a warm up game for them before the Super XV season started. A gamble by the Saracens management that could go one of two ways – a catastrophe or a huge success to be repeated!
My game day started out by buying a new boiler from the man from British Gas, not usually one to play safe, on this decision I took the easy if maybe more expensive option. I thought I had all bases covered as far as getting to the game was concerned giving myself hours to buy said boiler, seems it takes longer than I ever imagined! I set off much later than I usually would and typically found myself in a traffic jam, hard to be angry when you see two mashed cars as the reason. So no swanky lunch for me before the game as is my usual plan, no quick Kit Kat chunky either! An M&S (reasonably) healthy lunch it was to be; I got to the ground with a mere 15 minutes to go!
It was clear as I was making my way to my seat that I was to be in the minority as I found myself surrounded by Sharks fans – lots of South African flags on show! I was excited to have the chance to watch players such as Bismarck Du Plessis, Willem Alberts and Tendai Mtawarira play at close quarters. Watching international teams at Twickenham is immense but you can never really see the players in the same light. Saracens fielded a team which included a high proportion of first team starters; this for me was where the day could have ended in catastrophe. With everything to play for both in the Premiership and the Heineken Cup it was a huge gamble to pit players instrumental to the success of the 2013-14 season against a South African team. With no suggestion of any likely foul play I feel that players from SA are notoriously tough in the way they play; my worry before the game kicked off was that some of Saracens’ key men could get ‘broken’. It was great to see Jacques Burger making a start after a long lay-off, one of the key tackling machines was back!
The teams took to the field with huge enthusiasm from the near capacity crowd, with Sharks sporting a familiar washed out grey kit; a better look than the Saracens away kit however. It was a surprise to see James Short on the team list, a player on loan to Wasps; they must have had similar qualms. Sharks were awarded an early penalty after Saracens failed to roll away; Jacques Burger was rightly indignant as he tried his best to move away from a tangle of legs. Tim Swiel stepped up and scored, putting 3 points on the board. The first scrum saw a couple of collapses and a penalty given against Matt Stevens as he packed down against the ‘Beast’. Stevens cuts a very unusual figure as a professional sportsman, and with no offence to him, his shape and size never cease to amaze me; he does however almost without fail give a great performance. We had a small spell of rugby tennis, never an exciting thing to see as a fan, Odwa Ndungane finished the sequence by kicking the ball straight out in effect.
The next scrum penalty went the way of Saracens and Hodgson kicked the ball deep into the Sharks half; the 5m lineout however ended with a relieving penalty for Sharks as Borthwick stepped across the line after he was lifted. Jannie Du Plessis of the dubious hair took exception to Burger taking Andre Esterhuizen to the ground by the neck and held his head to the ground, with the touch judge’s intervention the penalty was over-turned, Charlie Hodgson however, started with a miss, a worrying blip considering the 8 kicks he missed against Connacht the previous weekend. He put that right with his next kick as Saracens were awarded a penalty from a collapsed scrum. Saracens took the lead after Hodgson kicked his second successful penalty after the seventh penalty was awarded against the Sharks.
Saracens were put into another great attacking position as David Strettle was taken out under a high ball. Sharks paid for the penalties given away on 26 minutes as the rolling maul set by Saracens was pulled down by Etienne Oosthuizen; he was shown a yellow card. I’m slightly with the Sharks fans on what happened next as Charlie Hodgson took a very quick tap penalty; the cameras missed the action as did the Sharks players as Mouritz Botha was standing in front of Hodgson messing about with his contact lenses. Not quite cricket, but the ref allowed play to continue and Strettle ran in to score. Hodgson converted to add the extras. Sharks suffered a further blow from the kick off as the other tall man Pieter-Steph du Toit crashed into the men catching the ball; a second yellow card was brandished. Saracens didn’t capitalise further on the extra men however which has to be pleasing for the Sharks. Back to 15 men for the Sharks and Interception Hodgson caught a pass made by the inexperienced Tim Swiel to run in and score between the posts. The teams went in with the score at Saracens 20 Sharks 3. Poor old Charlie (in rugby terms) had a microphone thrust into his breathless face as he was leaving the pitch; one of these days the BT Sports pundit is going to be told to put his mic where the sun don’t shine!
The weather deteriorated as the second half started; would a lead of 17 points be enough to see Saracens finish with a win? The Sharks came out with a great deal of intent and had a strong attacking phase, virtually swatting several Saracens players out of their way, the attack came to nothing as the ball was knocked on, and Saracens won a free kick from the resulting scrum. Jacques Burger left for the blood bin on 46 minutes, having made what the commentators described as a ‘face’ tackle! His replacement was the Japanese international Takashi Kikutani, a very interesting prospect with 60 caps for his country under his belt. There was a lengthy break in play as Lwazi Mvovo was carried from the field, great to see him raise an arm as he was leaving; hopefully the neck brace and back board were mere precautions. Saracens had a good attacking spell until Matt Stevens knocked on; Sharks got the ball to Andre Esterhuizen who kicked a mighty clearance, for some reason James Short tried to take the ball and tipped it over the line, handing the throw in over to the Sharks. Mouritz Botha who was to be awarded the Man of the Match plaudit threw himself into a crunching tackle on Jean Dysel as the Sharks attacked from the lineout; it will never cease to amaze me that players get up after being hit in such a way!
Saracens saw yellow with 53 minutes on the clock as Matt Stevens lay all over the ball right in front of the posts. The Sharks kicked to touch rather than take a certain 3 points; they attacked from the lineout with a level of intensity they hadn’t really shown to that point. Chris Wyles, playing at fullback knocked the ball on in an attempted tackle that probably saved a try; Sharks knocked on in the next phase of play giving the momentum back to the home team. With a man in the bin Saracens won a penalty as the scrum twisted; the ball although won in the lineout was lost by Saracens after a scrappy run of play. The Sharks flanker Tera Mtembu who had stood out all afternoon picked the ball up and threw a lovely dummy to break through; the ball was passed through the backs to Esterhuizen who ran in for a deserved try; Tim Swiel added the extras to take the score to Saracens 20 Sharks 10.
Schalk Brits made an uncharacteristic error, dropping the ball kicked away to clear the Sharks lines, kicking the ball in his frustration straight at the poor camera man, not the highlight of either mans’ afternoon! The weather had really deteriorated with 63 minutes on the clock and it appeared to be the South African team who were more used to playing in driving rain as they continued to dominate the play. Unlike Saracens who didn’t score when the Sharks had 2 men in the bin, Stevens 10 minutes was to prove more costly as the South Africans rolled a maul forwards after a lineout, the took the ball close to the Saracens’ line eventually getting the ball out to Heimar Williams who placed the ball over to score in the corner. Tim Swiel missed the difficult kick. With 14 minutes of the half remaining the visitors were 5 points behind; Saracens had ben nowhere near a score in the second half. A collapsed scrum saw a penalty awarded to Saracens however and Charlie Hodgson kicked what looked to be a miss from my seat, he had however judged the wind and rain accurately and the ball drifted in back over the posts. The gap was back to a 2 score one, with the appalling weather conditions getting worse that gap wasn’t to be closed. I must admit that I was willing the minutes to fly by as it got colder and wetter! The benefits of the artificial turf at Allianz Park have never been as obvious as in recent weeks, no muddy quagmires going on in North London!
And so as the rain became truly torrential the final whistle was blown and Saracens won the game with the score at Saracens 23 Sharks 15. I would say the day/game was a success. The Natal Sharks had a good, competitive workout and Jake White will have learnt something about his largely young team. Saracens took the victory and appeared to have survived the physical challenge, a few more stitches in Jacques Burgers’ face, but that seems to be a weekly occurrence. The bar sales were I believe a record at around £60K and some of the ex pat South Africans who made the journey will hopefully be tempted to make it again. The atmosphere was friendly and enthusiastic, I suspect the competition will become a yearly fixture.