With some key match ups on the fixture list in the 3rd week of the Premiership Rugby weekend including Harlequins v Wasps and Bath v Leicester I had a journey down the M4 to watch London Irish take on Saracens. Irish had travelled to Newcastle to beat them by a slim 2 points; Saracens had 2 wins under their belts, including a 39 nil victory against Quins. Reading has always seemed to be miles from Essex but it turns out it’s not so far at tall, highly do’able to take in a game of rugby! The roads weren’t incredibly kind but I still arrived with plenty of time to spare; a very civilised lunch in the Marriot Hotel was lovely, and no one looked at me as if I had 2 heads! The build up to the game was great; I loved the Irish Wolfhound on the pitch; the singer and the announcer was particularly good! The atmosphere was friendly and was clearly going to be one of mutual respect, in spite of a few silly whistles towards the end when Saracens were kicking. I should probably say at this point that if you’re a Saracens fan with delicate sensibilities you may not want to read on!
Owen Farrell started the game with the kick being taken cleanly by Ofisa Treviranus; the ball was returned and as is often the way for Saracens Billy Vunipola received, the ball made its way to Richard Wigglesworth, he made a break and passed to Owen Farrell, Tim Streather making his 1st start this season was on the wing; he had a clear run to the line and touched down to put early points on the scoreboard for the visitors. Owen Farrell converted the try. Streather was to knock the ball on moments later to see the 1st scrum of the game awarded. Would we have an afternoon of quick, clean scrums? Nope, the scrum was reset in the 1st instance then a penalty awarded to Saracens. This is the one element of the game that can make the 15 man game a tad boring, especially at the highest level, the scrum seems to work better at lower levels, or forwards don’t play for the penalty as often! Wigglesworth kicked the ball to touch, his team won the lineout but then lost the ball as it failed to emerge and Irish were awarded the put in at the scrum. Again the scrum resulted in a penalty for Saracens, this time in a scoring position; Farrell kicked and added 3 points.
Irish chased the ball from the kick off and found themselves in a great attacking position; there was a hint of player ahead of the kicker, but deemed not so by the officials. Shane Geraghty chipped the ball for Alex Lewington (watch for this phrase again!) and he looked certain to score; Owen Farrell put in a great tackle to save the try. However Irish stayed in control and having spread the ball left and then right Blair Cowan virtually strolled in to score. Geraghty taking the place of Tom Homer who left the field injured at Twickenham stepped up and added the extras. To the disappointment of the home crowd Saracens pulled 3 points back from a Farrell penalty after Irish were judged to be offside as Vunipola took the ball as it was returned from the kick off. Irish found themselves putting in to the scrum virtually on the Saracens line minutes later after they seemed to lose their decisiveness in their own half; they usually don’t mess about in their own half; failure to clear their lines put Irish in a strong position. However another scrum failed to work for Irish and Saracens were awarded a free kick. 2 thoughts in my notes at this point; ‘the scrums aren’t going well’ and the fact that both Owen Farrell and Jacques Burger were heavily bandaged. Saracens are all about rotation but 7 changes from the team who beat Harlequins so heavily felt unwise; especially when several of those players had seen little of a rugby ball in action for a while.
Saracens next try could so nearly have been different had James Short have taken the ball from an Owen Farrell kick up the field after Billy Vunipola came away from a scrum. Instead it was Chris Ashton who took the ball, he flicked the ball to Alex Goode who in turn passed to Ernst Joubert on the wing in Ashton’s place. Joubert kicked on and again the ball ended in Ashton’s hands; he passed to Vunipola who combined with Time Streather. The ball was taken into a ruck and Richard Wigglesworth emerged and ran into space to score a try. Farrell faced with a difficult kick slotted the ball over the posts. At this point it looked as if the visitors may run away with the game. But London Irish had different plans. Alex Goode had a decent break as Saracens attacked again; he has a wonderful knack of evading the opposition with the ball in hand. However his efforts were wasted as Irish were awarded a penalty; a further penalty was given to Irish from the lineout; it looked as if Jim Hamilton was lucky not to see a card for a deliberate knock on. Always a harsh card to me that one. However in a great position Irish took full advantage – and here is a line I can cut and paste a few times in this report. Chris Noakes put in a huge cross field kick; Josh Lewington took the ball and ran in to score a great try, evading 2 weak tackles. Shane Geraghty added the extras. Now it seems that Josh Lewingotn was celebrating his birthday and he certainly did that in style. His provider for the next try was his scrum half Scott Steele, in a virtual repeat of his 1st try, Steele kicked the ball through; a grubber style kick this time and Lewington collected the ball wrong footing the defender to score another exciting try. The kick failed to go through the posts. Owen Farrell was given a chance to extend the Saracens lead after his team were awarded a penalty; his kick from a long way out hit the posts. The teams went in with Saracens leading by 4 points and Irish by 3 tries to 2.
The 2nd half saw Shane Geraghty close that gap as he kicked a huge penalty from just inside the Saracens half as the visitors were deemed to be offside; we now had a 1 point game. Saracens went on the attack and Jacques Burger dropped the ball and a good deal of blood from his face; he left to visit the blood bin and Jackson Wray came into the fray. This is one of the comments Saracens fans may not like; for me Burger didn’t look match fit, as amazing a player as he clearly is, to me the replacement should have remained. Josh Lewington’s birthday got better after Scott Steele kicked the ball through as he took the ball from the scrum; the speedy winger was of course in place to collect the ball and run in to score his hat trick, and his teams’ bonus point try! There were Saracens players in situ but neither Chris Wyles or Jackson Wray who would never be able to compete against one of the fast men got anywhere near him and Alex Goode totally missed his tackle. 3 tries scored by the same man in pretty much the same manner. Fantastic for the birthday boy but goodness lots of questions to answer for Saracens! London Irish took the lead for the first time as Geraghty added the extras to take their score to 29 to Saracens 23.
Saracens took the game to 29 all after they were awarded 2 penalties, firstly from a scrum then as a maul was pulled down; Alex Goode took both kicks which suggested that Owen Farrell was feeling the strain. Shane Geraghty having missed a penalty took a kick from the halfway line to put his team ahead and in a great positon for the win. The London Irish fan sitting next to me had said he felt that there would be a late twist and so it proved to be. Shane Geraghty had another huge kick from within his own half, this time from in front the posts; an easier kick direction wise but the ball missed the posts. It was funny how an Irish fan in the area I was sitting yelled a huge yes every time the ball went near the posts from a kick; great persuasive tactic. Charlie Hodgson had come on with less than 10 minutes remaining yet it was Goode who had a kick at goal when Saracens were awarded another penalty. The kick missed, it was a shame to hear a couple of whistles from the crowd as he was kicking. With only minutes remaining the quick action of Jamie George who again played the full 80 minutes prevented what could have been a disastrous moment for Saracens. They were penalised for not being bound as they rolled a maul forward after a lineout and Billy Vunipola was clearly perturbed, he seemed to walk angrily towards the referee; George stood in his way preventing what could have had led to far reaching consequences for the man who is so mild off the pitch! With less than 2 minutes left on the clock the scrum with an Irish put in was set and yet another penalty awarded to Saracens; Charlie Hodgson stepped up…… and kicked to touch. This time the rolling maul was not to be stopped and Billy Vunipola pulled himself to the back, Saracens surged over the line to break Irish hearts. Hodgson added the extras.
The title for the report comes from my fellow Saracens fan Alun Morgan as the final whistle was blown. Without a doubt the decision to take the penalty and kick to touch took real guts and kept Saracens on 3 wins from their starting 3 games. That is to be admired but I think the training ground will be an interesting place this week. Saracens face Sale Sharks with an in form Danny Cipriani pulling strings at home next. They then travel to Bath to face the team that beat Leicester Tigers by 45 points to nil; a clear marker laid down by the league leaders. Lots of work needed and big selection decisions to be made for both of those games. London Irish have many positives to take form a game they lost in the final moments, they came away with 2 bonus points which was the very least they deserved!