After a day out watching some of the most exciting rugby I think I’ve ever seen at Twickenham with both the Barbarians and Australia playing a wonderful brand of rugby it was time to head to Allianz Park to watch Saracens play Harlequins in the LV Cup. Both teams had a mix of experience and youth on their team sheets. I was looking forward to watching Maro Itoje; starting at flanker, he was captain for the day, a role he carried out very successfully for the England U20’s leading his team to a final win against South Africa in the IRB Junior World Championship. This is a young man with a bright future, capable of playing in both the back and the 2nd row.
The game would be a good measure of how the future is shaping for both London clubs; both are bringing through some very talented young players. It has to be said however that the Saracens team contained a fair few experienced players; a high proportion of the starting 15 are regular 1st team players. Harlequins are the current holders of the LV Cup and were in no mood to relinquish their hold.
Ben Spencer was given an early shot at the posts as Itoje was involved in the ruck in midfield; Harlequins were penalised and Spencer kicked well to put 3 points of the board. Luke Wallace; a favourite Quin of mine, shone in the opening exchanges, he’s always so quick to the ball, a natural 7 who generally plays at 6 to facilitate the England captain Chris Robshaw must surely gain an England shirt at some stage!
Saracens surged forward in attack and on 9 minutes looked to have scored as the forwards went over the line; the 1st of many visits to the TMO saw the move declared indecisive and a scrum awarded. Saracens cane away with the ball through Ernst Joubert but a pass by Scott Spurling went behind Mike Ellery giving the scrum and possession back to Quins.
As good as Luke Wallace is Maro Itoje simply ripped the ball out of his hands as Quins attacked from within their own half; the ball was again knocked on. Saracens were penalised in the scrum and Karl Dickson took a quick tap. His box kick later in the move was misjudged by Ben Spencer; he flicked the ball over the line; however Ernst Joubert won the ball for Saracens. Jacques Burger took the ball into contact before Ben Spencer put in his own box kick. Saracens Romanian winger Catalin Fercu was lucky not to see yellow as he ran for the ball and straight into Charlie Walker’s back sending him to the ground.
Maro Itoje won a penalty for a 2nd time to allow Saracens to clear their lines, he seems to be so focussed on the ball when he goes into both the tackle and the ruck and often comes away with it in his hands! A feature of the game was the number of errors by both teams, Quins struggles with their line outs; Nils Mordt had a kick charged down by Ollie Lindsay-Hague in a dangerous spot; their initial attack didn’t succeed; they then lost their own line out again.
Saracens attacked from a scrum with Jacques Burger taking the ball forward; Ben Ransom and Duncan Taylor combined close to the Quins line but Quins held firm and Nick Tompkins knocked the ball on as it flew across the line. With the scrum set in the Quins danger zone we saw another charge down as Louis Grimoldby attempted to clear the ball; Taylor had a short run to put the ball down under the posts. The kick was an easy one for Spencer who added the extras.
One notable starter for the home team was Juan Figallo;a very athletic looking prop is fitness has been in doubt; the sidestep he put in as Saracens attacked suggest he’s getting fitter! Saracens 2nd try was scored after a line out, the ball was spun across the field, moving out to Ben Ransom who made one of many decisive runs, he swatted Lindsay-Hague off before passing to Mike Ellery who skipped down the line, miraculously staying in the field of play to score. His team mates were clearly delighted for him. Spencer missed the conversion.
Grimoldby kicking with the wind gave Quins their 1st points after Rhys Gill was penalised in the scrum; moments later he underestimated the pitch and the wind, kicking the ball off the end of the pitch taking Saracens straight back into the Quins half. The ball was knocked on by Saracens and playing advantage Grimoldby got his kick right to take the play back into the Saracens half, if only for the line out. Saracens attacked with some flair but the ball went out as they progressed.
Another Quins line out another Saracens steal, the ball went across the Sarcens line and only a solid tackle by Luke Wallace saved a try as Nick Tompkins went over the line, another decision for the TMO, he correctly adjudged Tompkins’ foot to be in touch. This time Quins went for a short line out, and another disaster, it didn’t go 5! Saracens were twice awarded a penalty in the scrum, it then collapsed, which in reality should have been a Quins penalty; the next collapse did indeed see a penalty awarded to the visitors. The teams went in with Saracens ahead by 15 points to 3.
The teams emerged for the 2nd half with a few changes in personnel; Quins made the more positive start as they enjoyed some time with the ball in hands. Grimoldby put in a clever kick taken into touch by Ransom, would they win their own line out? This time they did and rolled forward towards the Saracens line, to no avail as they knocked the ball on, but things were looking better for them. Although Ross Chisholm kicked the ball too hard seeing it sail across the line.
The introduction of Tim Swiel saw a livelier Quins attack; Charlie Walker looking back to full fitness showed his dancing feet to take Quins deep into the Saracens half; the home defence was made to work hard. Jordan Turner-Hall went down with what looked like a head injury, it was a surprise that the referee let play continue around him for as long a he did. Turner-Hall emerged unscathed fortuneatly.
Nils Mordt who’d had a good 1st half managed to kick the ball straight out giving Quins the momentum back, Dickson chose to box kick as they attacked and Ben Spencer had enough time to call the mark. Quins were awarded a very kickable penalty but chose to kick to touch; the tactic worked as Mark Lambert very delicately spun round to score Quins 1st try, how such a big man could look so light footed I do not know! We had the TMO again, goodness the desire to go tot the screen added a level of boredom to the game! Swiel added the 2 to close the gap to 5 points.
Saracens hit back straight away as Ben Ransom showed his twinkle toes after collecting a high kick; Nick Tompkins showed he could do the same and the ball went outside to Marcelo Bosch who made his own break, Nick De Jager took the inside pass from Bosch; Jack Wilson was on his shoulder; he ran in to score a well worked try. Spencer took the score to Saracens 22 Harlequins 10.
Charlie Walker was next to score out on his wing after Dickson went very close as he took the ball from a Quins maul, the ball was passed out to the opposite wing where Walker was waiting. Swiel kicked a conversion that will have Quins fans chirping, virtually from the touchline it sailed sweetly over the posts.
I am now going to have a rant at my fellow Saracens fans, Ollie Lindsay-Hague was very clumsy when going for a high ball in competition with Jack Wilson, the replays do show that both men were going for the ball but Lindsay- Hague was lower than Wilson. The shouts of – ‘off, off, off’ really have no place for me, that feels like the behaviour of football fans! The referee asked the TMO for his opinion then promptly ignored his advice not to issue a yellow; it will always be a risk when you ‘take’ a man to the ground, but I’m not so sure it was incredibly different to the same offence by Fercu.
The final 13 minutes were to see penalty apiece exchanged, in spite of the man advantage it was Quins who looked more likely to score a try than Saracens. The score finished Saracens 25 Harlequins 20. I’d say the 1st half error count was won by Quins, the 2nd half by Saracens. A win for the home team, but a bonus point for Harlequins; probably fair spoils on the day, but both teams will need to decrease their error count if they want to progress in the competition. And Maro Itoje? In general was a star; I walked out with him and voiced my thoughts that a few 1st team players must be looking over their shoulders!