It’s seemed like an age since I’ve seen my team play live, not that I’ve been without live rugby but I was feeling slightly Saracens deprived as I travelled to Wembley. This is one venue that’s fairly easy to get by train to from Essex and so I drove to Shenfield to experience that novelty of using my Oyster Card, very sad that it still thrills me after having one for at least 4 years! I got on the train with a couple making their way to the Cruise Show at Olympia; they’d been married for 52 years, amazing how things can be if you get it right first time! The last visit to Wembley for Saracens wasn’t a happy one as Toulouse beat them in the Heineken Cup group stages by a solitary point. Since they’ve played at Allianz Park I feel that moving to the big venue throws away home advantage. Harlequins have had a very up and down season, having watched them at least 5 times live I know they can be capable of beating any team put in front of them. Having beaten them at the Stoop earlier in the season a win must have been on their wish list in a major way. It was with some surprise that I learnt all but Joe Marler from their crop of England internationals were being rested. With Mike Brown having been named player of the tournament this week that seemed an odd decision. I’ve been less than convinced about Wembley as a venue, it feels as if it’s in the middle of nowhere, but my visit started this time with a very convivial meal with my good friends Alun, Sharon and Nicole in the new Outlet. With the restaurants along with the shops (dirty word) it’ll make Wembley a much better place to frequent.
Harlequins entered the fray first followed by Steve Borthwick leading Saracens out, he led a very little girl on as mascot; how amazing to run out to such a huge crowd!
A comedy moment happened early on as Ugo Monye and Jacques Burger went up for a high ball, Burger more by chance than effort managed to ‘head’ the ball, with his whole face! Chris Ashton showed his union mind is improving by the day put in a great kick to the corner having taken a high ball from Nick Evans. David Strettle, who has had a great career with Saracens went down in the tackle and laid prone for what seemed an age, on watching again on the TV it seems he fell into an arm thrown in the tackle by Maurie Fa’asavalu; the stretcher bearers made their first appearance of the afternoon to carry him off. They spent the rest of the afternoon looking like the vultures on Bedknobs and Broomsticks desperate to get on again! With utility back Chris Wyles with the American team Duncan Taylor came on in place of the injured Strettle. In the lull the preceding lineout was looked at, Nick Kennedy was a very lucky man it seemed, Steve Borthwick moved into him too early and was penalised, Kennedy as is now plain on the TV replays, threw an arm with great intent to catch Borthwick in the face. This sort of play can’t be seen when you’re in the stadium but might explain some of the later play.
Chris Ashton was the grateful recipient of an interception after Nick Easter flicked a ball out, he ran most of the length of the field to the delight of the Saracans fans to swallow dive under the posts to score. One of these days….. Owen Farrell slotted an easy conversion over the posts. Saracens surged forward to attack with a great pass by Schalk Brits popping up a great pass to Ernst Joubert, the move resulted in a knock on however; Quins struggled to clear their lines after the scrum but were aided by a no arm tackle by Farrell. Nick Evans kicked into a great position from the resulting lineout and Chris Ashton had a nightmare attempt at picking the ball up, knocking it on not once but twice! Quins were awarded a penalty as Mako Vunipola came out second best to Kyle Sinckler in the scrum; he is clearly a great prospect for England in the future! Nick Evans converted the penalty to close the gap to 4 points. Joe Marler handed the next penalty to Saracens as he took Vunipola out off the ball, and interesting statistic; he had been sin binned in 3 of the previous 4 encounters with Saracens; Owen Farrell scored the penalty. The next passage of play involved some yawn making rugby tennis, with the final kick by Farrell going over the in goal line. Not a brilliant result for Saracens but at least it stopped the kick fest! Saracens next score came after they’d been awarded a penalty after Ollie Lindsey-Hague failed to release the ball in the tackle. The ball was passed out from the lineout ending with George Kruis who spotted a big gap in the Quins defence to score under the posts. Another easy conversion for Farrell who repeated his Joining Jack sign as he ran away; not a ‘gangster’ sign as tweeted by a fan from an opposing club last weekend, but a sign in support of finding a cure for Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy.
Harlequins were next on the scorecard after some concerted attacking play, Karl Dickson spotted the gap in the Saracens defence to score a good try; Nick Evans added the extras to take the scores to Saracens 17 Harlequins 10. For once I agree with Austin Healey on the next penalty awarded and scored by Saracens, Sinckler went in to the tackle and was pulled over by Kruis; yet penalised for going off his feet! A harsh decision by the referee! Richard Wigglesworth and Joe Marler were very lucky not to receive a yellow card on 35 minutes, after Marler held the scrum half with great deliberation, Wigglesworth swung his arm at Marler’s face in response, the result was a mere reversal of the penalty that had been awarded to Saracens. Ollie Lindsey-Hague saved a try with a great take on the ground after Duncan Taylor showed his footballing skills; but Nick Evans threw a crazy 30 yard pass in front of his own try line to give Owen Farrell the interception this time for an easy try and conversion. The teams went in at half time with the scores on Saracens 27 Harlequins 10.
Harlequins started the second half with some great attacking play and again a Saracens player was lucky not to see a yellow card as he dived in to what looked like a dangerous tackle on Fa’asavalu; Burger lays his body on the line in every game, it does at times mean he mistimes, or forgets to use his arms, he was lucky not to have 10 minutes rest. Steve Borthwick was however given that rest on 42 minutes as he again mistimed his move in the lineout, he knew he was bang to rights as he simply walked when the card was produced; wouldn’t it be refreshing of footballers responded in the same way to the referee! Quins took advantage almost immediately as Sam Smith spotted the gap on the wing to score a good try, Nick Evans scored what was a very difficult conversion to close the gap to 10. It was pleasing to see David Strettle sitting upright and smiling, albeit with a messed up face!
With a man advantage and a gap that had been closed to 10 points Quins continued to show their potential with some great attacking play. Evans chose to kick to touch rather than take the 3 points after being awarded a penalty; but handed the advantage back to Saracens after the ball was knocked on. Saracens won a penalty after Matt Stevens on as a replacement in the scrum against Marler. Steve Borthwick came back onto the pitch with 7 points having been scored against his team. Saracens scored their bonus point try from the lineout as Brits threw a short ball from a lineout as Quins seemed to lose all concentration; Kruis gave the ball back to Brits who passed to Jacques Burger; he drove the ball over the line to score. Farrell unusually missed the conversion.
Harlequins with the gap now at 15 points continued to attack, they’d made numerous substitutions but had some very weary looking players on the pitch. Joubert was penalised in the lineout for seemingly interfering with the player; now I’m not a Saracens fan who believes every decision against them is wrong, and I do have to say to my fellow fans, there is no team who fails to give away penalties or to knock the ball on it’s just the nature of the game, the referee isn’t always wrong! However, this time I think he was; hard to see all that goes on, but I do wish the touch judges would be a bit more involved. It was to be Saracens who had the last word after Charlie Hodgson kicked to touch from a penalty; the ball made its way to Marcelo Bosch who having had a very good game, jinked through the Quins defence to score, Hodgson kicked the conversion with the final kick of the game. The score finished with the scores at Saracens 39 Harlequins 17. A deserved win by Saracens who again sit at the top of the table after Sale Sharks beat Northampton. Owen Farrell was judged to be Man of the Match; not a bad return from his England successes; And again a huge question to be asked about the Quins decision to rest Mike Brown, Danny Care and captain Chris Robshaw. I’ll be at the Harlequins game next week against London Irish and am expecting so see a win, I’m not so sure a loss by 22 points is the best preparation however for the business end of their season.