After another immense international weekend for me involving a visit to Cardiff to see an immense game of rugby in an amazing stadium I set off up the M4 to get to Allianz Park for a 1 o’clock kick off. With dire conditions that journey wasn’t the deepest of joys; it never ceases to amaze me that drivers fail to see the danger in lakes of water on a motorway! However I arrived in plenty of time and in one piece!
Rude not to enjoy a Costa before I headed off to the ground; the good company of fellow Saracens fan Nigel added to the pleasure before we headed to a soggy Allianz Park. That final game of the season was I’m sure on everyone’s mind, not least the players. Saints were visiting on the back of a home loss to Exeter Chiefs – a team on the up! Saracens were smarting after conceding a last minute penalty against Leicester Tigers which turned a win into a draw.
The teams emerged into pouring rain, one benefit of the artificial pitch is that the deluge wouldn’t mean a boggy, unhelpful surface. It was a surprise to see Luther Burrell’s name on the team sheet; it seems crazy for England to release a centre and play a fly half in the centres to me; I’d presumed Burrell was injured!
In spite of both sides missing key players through international duty I’d say Saints presented the more settled and experienced side. That experience combined early on as Calum Clark, sometimes a villain, often a star collected a chip through from Stephen Myler; Dickson and Myler then combined with Myler getting away a superb pass to the aforementioned Burrell. Burrell floated a pass out to James Wilson on the wing. Wilson scored what looked like an easy try.
Sitting in the stadium the pass from Burrell didn’t look forward, watching the game back on the TV I’m surprised it wasn’t checked; but the referee blew for a try, so a try it was. Myler had a tough kick as a starter; but was equal to the task, adding the extras with a great kick.
We had a short spell of rugby tennis, in fact that happened a few times as Ben Foden and Alex Goode exchanged kicks, not the n=best spectacle but understandable under the dreadful conditions. Will Fraser knocked the ball on from a poor Saints lineout giving the TV audience a chance to see his very impressive Movember effort! The resulting scrum saw the 1st scrum penalty of many awarded to Saints.
Saracens however survived the attack as Dickson took a quick tap; Goode and Hodgson had a go at playing football with a rugby ball; the ball was fumbled by the Jamie Elliot and picked up by Samu Monoa in an offside position. Charlie Hodgson put his team on the board with the resulting penalty.
The next penalty was awarded to the visitors as Alistair Hargreaves was deemed to have not rolled away in the tackle; Myler in good form with the boot took Saints to 10. That lead was to be stretched further as Wilson scored in the same corner after a neat kick through by Dickson. A simple yet hugely effective tactic with the kick going into space. Myler slotted a sublime kick to take Saints to 17, with Saracens still sitting on 3.
Saracens really suffered in the scrum in the first half with Juan Figallo in particular struggling; Saints gained great territory every time they won a scrum penalty. Saracens attempted to roll a maul out of their own 22 after a lineout; waiting too long to play the ball Rhys Gill knocked the ball on.
Saracens were to be stunned on 21 minutes when they won a scrum; the ball moved back to Billy Vunipola who was tackled by Dickson, the ball was spilled and picked up by Phil Dowson who scored what may have been one of the easiest tries he’s made. Myler’s kick from the same point was missed this time; but the score now read Saracens 3 Saints 22 with a mere 24 minutes on the board.
Another penalty was awarded against Saracens in the scrum, this time in kicking distance; Myler added 3 points to his team’s tally. Things were getting worse for the home team. I agree on the part of the BT Sports commentary team on the point that with so many scrums going wrong an early prop substitution would have been a plan!
Try scorer Ryan Wilson showed his kicking skills as he booted the ball across the field deep into the Saracens half; although a Saracens throw in he put his team in the right half of the pitch. Saints weren’t issuing one George North at all! Myler had another penalty opportunity and actually missed! Most unusual! It has to be asked why he isn’t in favour with the England set up; he has a great eye for the game, bringing flair and skill he also as a rule has a great boot!
Saracens closed the gap with a try on the stroke of half time after eschewing several kicks at goal; they rolled over the line after several line outs with Jackson Wray getting his name on the board; Hodgson missed the kick and the teams went in with the scores on Saracens 8 Saints 25!
Saracens emerged after half time with that change at prop with James Johnston replacing Figallo; the 1st penalty went in favour of Saints as Fraser was deemed to have slowed the ball down; giving the TV audience another look at the impressive Mo! Saracens at last seemed to be on the front foot as they won a free kick in the scrum, Vunipola who’d been quiet in the 1st half seemed to emerge a determined man, a great carry by him saw a penalty awarded against Phil Dowson; Hodgson scored the 3 points to close the gap.
Saracens were penalised again in the scrum, possibly unfairly, but it seems so hard to tell just who is at fault at times; in this case looking at the replay, Gill was penalised Selesi Ma’afu had slipped his bind? The next scrum penalty close to the Saracens line went the way of the home team allowing them to clear their lines.
Richard Barrington joined Johnston and an ever present Jamie George in the front row; but Saints again won several scrum penalties; they do seem to be a mechanism to win penalties rather than restart in the modern game; it doesn’t make for a good spectacle for the crowd who in the ground can’t see what’s happening. Funny how most think they can see better than the referee however! Barrington put in an illegal tackle giving Myler a chance to add 3 more points.
With 20 minutes of the game remaining the gap was 17 points; a series of penalties as Saracens finally put in a concerted attacking effort saw a yellow card brandished at Alex Waller as he kicked the ball out of the ruck from the side. Would the home team be able to take advantage of the man advantage? Saracens drove towards the line and were awarded penalty, the crowd thought the ref had signalled a try; he did moments later as Ben Spencer took a quick tap. There was an overlap with Chris Ashton on the wing but Chris Wyles backed himself, using his strength to score. Hodgson’s kick wasn’t successful but the gap was closed.
The introduction of Ben Ransom saw an increased urgency again for Saracens and they were to score the next try again through Chris Wyles after the rest of his team mates had been involved in driving forward. The TMO was involved but it really seemed to be a clear try! Hodgson again missed the posts. The gap was down to 7; putting the home team into losing bonus point territory. Not quite what might have been imagined for last season’s table toppers against last season’s champions!
The final 10 minutes were exciting and far more even than the 1st half; however they resulted in a penalty apiece being awarded and scored. Saints went home with it has to be said a deserved win in the bag; Saracens finished with the solo bonus point. Which was far more than might have been expected at half time!