With an extremely weird weekend with no live sport facing me I decided to have a go at the Saracens big screen experience; perhaps I’d feel slightly less freakish shouting at the TV in the company of other avid fans! Unless of course I was the only one shouting, then I might get thrown out! I arrived at an eerily empty Allianz Park; it always feels a bit strange with none of the game day action going on. I had no idea what the afternoon would be like and having arrived fairly early found the 100 Club, the venue for the game, fairly empty. However as match time got nearer so the room started to fill, with around, funnily enough, 100 people there to watch the game and eat what was a pretty decent lunch for a mere 8 English Pounds! Saracens really are building a home for their fans, having the ground has only been a part of the improved experience.
And so to the game, Steve Borthwick led out his team in our washed out grey and blue stripe kit, not a good look even for the pretty boy backs! Mauro Bergamasco making a landmark appearance I presume came on ahead of his team, with his captain Marco Bortolami following on. A minutes silence was observed in the stadium to remember Nelson Mandela, it was also honoured in the room which was quite touching. This was an important game for Saracens, having lost their ‘home’ game at Wembley against Toulouse only a bonus point win would do! The first real play of the game was a lineout for Saracens as the ball was kicked out by Zebre at the start; Neil De Kock cleared the ball after the lineout was won. Saracens also won the first Zebre lineout and after a run of play a penalty was awarded against the Italian team; Charlie Hodgson kicked for the corner. However the advantage was given away as after a poor throw by Schalk Brits the lineout was lost. Zebre tried to run the ball out but had no joy and cleared their lines with a kick. The first points came from the boot of Charlie Hodgson who seems to get better and better; he converted a penalty to give the visitors a 3 point lead.
The comment in my notes at this stage? We need tries from that level of pressure, bonus point needed! Zebre continued to give away penalties in the ruck with Bergamasco going off his feet on a regular basis! The Italians won the ball in their own half but a poor pass led to a knock on and the first scrum. The first attempt collapsed but the second held and Billy Vunipola picked the ball up from the base, a clever pass to Chris Wyles saw him run through a gap, he in turn passed to George Kruis who piled through to score; Hodgson converted to stretch the lead to 10.
The next scrum held, woohoo, and Billy Vunipola playing scrum half stylie took the ball again. Another scrum this time for Zebre, after De Kock knocked on, wheeled round at the first attempt, which was a shame as Brits had hooked against the head! However the scrum collapsed and resulted in a penalty for Saracens; calmly converted by Hodgson. Zebre’s woes continued as the ball was kicked straight into touch from the kick off, Saracens won the scrum on halfway but David Strettle kicked the ball away. Another scrum was set and resulted in a penalty for Saracens; Hodgson kicked to touch. Brits through a short ball to Ernst Joubert who simply ran through after feigning a pass back to Brits. Hodgson missed a difficult kick from the touchline. At 26 minutes Saracens had 2 of the required tries in the bag. And as for the shouting thing? Well everyone was doing it which was far more comforting than feeling an oddball in my living room!
A yellow card felt inevitable after the number of penalties conceded by Zebre and one was indeed wielded to send Samu Vunisa to the bin for a 10 minute think. Saracens continued to press and a brilliant run by Alex Goode tracked by Chris Wyles saw the American Eagle run on to score. Hodgson converted to take the score to 25 nil. Things looked worse for Zebre as Bergamasco who had been offending all through the half was shown a yellow to take the home team down to 13 men for a spell. They were saved by the half time whistle.
The second half seemed to see different teams taking to the field as the play for the first 10 minutes or so was very scrappy and error strewn. Zebre scored the only points with a penalty converted by Gonzalo Garcia. As far as Saracens were concerned Billy Vunipola dropped the ball on 2 occasions, a fellow fan commented that catching wasn’t his job, but surely a rugby player should be able to take a ball.
Saracens seemed to have scored a great try from a scrum with Strettle running across the line; the try wasn’t given however as Duncan Taylor was deemed to have interfered with the defenders. The move had come from the ball being held in by Billy Vunipola who had a great game in his forward play, followed by a great pass by Charlie Hodgson; but, to no avail. Saracens were next on the scorecard with Chris Ashton after some solid forward play and a great run and pass by Marcello Bosch. Hodgson converted to take the score to Zebre 3 Saracens 32; a bonus point in the bag! Ashton added to his personal tally with another attractive try after a smart piece of play by Strettle and another good run by Goode; Owen Farell on for Hodgson stepped up and converted to increase the gap.
Zebre were to have the final word on the score – after Saracens were reduced to 14 men as Duncan Taylor was shown a yellow for lying all over the ball. Zebre won the ball in the Saracens half and Samu Vunisa ran half the pitch after a great one/two to run in and give the home fans something to shout about; the successful conversion took the score at the final whistle to Zebre 8 Saracens 39. A good day at the office for the men in grey, and as I write this report it is with the knowledge that Connacht went to the home of the mighty Toulouse and held on to beat them 14 to 16. A result that couldn’t have been better for Saracens! I will be back at Allianz to watch televised games again; it was a very pleasant experience and one I’d certainly recommend!