I spent time at Allianz Park on my Lady who Lunches Friday; where football was being played, a tournament with Saracens’ sponsors playing against a couple of Saracens teams. It was a bit odd to see a round ball being kicked about; I probably shouldn’t comment on the standard. Allianz with their pick of 1500 employees were the victors, they play a bit it seems. It was to say the least unusual to see Hugh Vyvyan taking part, I’m not so sure the frame of a 2nd row is conducive to Wendyball! But, fun was had by all! I was there to meet with Ali Barwell; Head of HR for for Sanlam Private Investments. With my particular interest in ‘Life After Rugby’ and what the game is doing to prepare players for their future it was wonderful to meet Ali; we’re going to look at how Sanlam work with both Saracens and now Essex players to look ahead. A special mention must go to Karen Burke from Sanlam who was the only lady playing on the day – she’d never played before- what a good sport! For a Friday I had a smooth journey to and from Allianz; I almost feel that my car can make its own way there! However I very nearly missed the kick off on game day! I decided in the morning that I ought to reintroduce myself to the concept of housework; not my favourite way to spend time, but I’d forgotten what colour my conservatory floor was for one thing! My attempt at making my house look presentable meant I left home a little later than I’d normally like; meaning I got caught up in traffic following an accident on the M25. With time ticking away I decided to be clever (try and be clever) and find a cut through from the A1 – I wasted 15 minutes and ended up going in a circle! Not the cleverest of moves – but, hey ho I arrived just in time! I literally hate missing a moment of the game so was a tad relieved! Gloucester’s visit to Allianz Park in the 13/14 season saw them playing virtually the whole 80 minutes with 14 men after Nick Wood had a rush of madness; stamping on Jacques Burger; receiving what must have been one of the quickest red cards in the Premiership. Saracens won that encounter 44 to 12; I felt certain we wouldn’t see a repeat of that scoreline. Saracens were back home after their only loss of the season so far, having travelled to Bath and been bested; Gloucester had faced the ‘not really turning up’ Leicester Tigers, beating them well. With a change of personnel both on and off the field for Gloucester they felt like a whole different prospect. One of their new signings James Hook started proceedings; his kick off was taken by Ben Ransom, starting in the full back position for the first time this season, he fired the ball into touch to give us the 1st lineout of the game. The popular Schalk Brits (sunshine on legs) was back from his stint with South Africa to make his 1st start for Saracens; his game wasn’t to last long as he took a huge hit as the ball was run from the lineout; no prolonged spell on the bench for Jamie George! Greig Laidlaw was given an opportunity to out his team ahead as Saracens gave away 2 penalties in quick succession; he converted both to take the visitors to a 6 point lead. I hadn’t been as aware as I should have been of the new signings for Gloucester but it was easy to spot Richard Hibbard with his flowing blond locks; I always find it a bit odd to see a sportsman with his hair flowing free; who could be bothered when you spend your life running round a usually muddy pitch! Saracens were awarded a penalty on the halfway line and rather than take the long term attempt at points Charlie Hodgson kicked to touch. It had looked as if the ploy had worked as the ball was spread across the pitch to Chris Ashton; there was some excitement in the crowd until they realised he’d been pushed into touch. Laidlaw cleared the ball from the lineout; Billy Vunipola who goes from strength to strength each week joined the line to make a great carry as Saracens spread the ball again; the game was to be one with plenty of ‘whistle’ and Gloucester were pinged for offside. This penalty was more ‘kickable’ but again Hodgson kicked to touch; another concerted attack seeing both Alastair Hargreaves and Jim Hamilton carrying the ball; another penalty. This time points were the choice and Hodgson put the home side on the board. Saracens concerted attack had gained them 3 points but Gloucester were to be the 1st to score a try; Saracens seemed to have a tackling problem as Gloucester went on the attack; Chris Ashton had come off his wing to join the defensive line giving Rob Cook a free run to the line; he scored a good try and Laidlaw converted from near the touchline. Things weren’t quite going to plan as the visitors went ahead by 10 points, there was a distinct sigh amongst the crowd. Billy Twelvetrees (36) helped remedy that situation with a poor kick; Chris Wyles was on hand to charge the ball down; he ran half the length of the pitch with 36 in tow, but beat him to the try line to score under the posts! In the same way that I’ve given my opinion at times about Chris Ashton and an England shirt I do feel the time has passed for Twelvetrees too; his decision making at times is way too ponderous, not a useful trait for a top class centre. An easy conversion for Hodgson took the score to Saracens 10 Gloucester 13. Richard Wigglesworth looked to clear the ball from the kick off but failed to find touch as Hook flicked the ball back into play; his returning kick was run back by Ben Ransom, showing his worth at fullback, the ball made its way to Brad Barritt who kicked through, finding Hook again. The ball was well taken but he was penalised for failing to release the ball; showing try scoring intent Hodgson kicked for the corner. The ball was; as my notes say, thrown about by Saracens as they won the lineout as first Ransom then David Strettle broke through the defensive line; as the ball went out the the right wing that well known winger Alastair Hargreaves took the ball to sail across the line to score; shoddy that he didn’t consider the position of the kick! (kidding) No extras added but Saracens took the lead for the 1st time in the game. You may have noticed that we seem to be a fair way int the game – 29 minutes in fact and there’s been no mention of a scrum! We had the 1st scrum awarded after Jonny May knocked on in midfield – not quite the record of the Wales v Australia game of last season when there wasn’t a scrum in the 1st half, but very unusual all the same. First scrum – would it hold? Nope, the scrum collapsed and Gloucester were penalised; Hodgson put a brat kick t touch in. Billy Vunipola emerged from the ruck as is so often the case but on this occasion was taken into touch. Gloucester were able to clear their lines as Saracens were penalised for taking a player down in the lineout. Charlie Sharples; a favourite of mine over the years, showed his credentials on the wing as he took a high kick from Hook as play progressed, worryingly for Saracens he was largely unchallenged; the ball was however passed forward and a scrum put in awarded to Saracens. Another scrum; another penalty; Hodgson again kicked to touch but lost the ball after the lineout then gave a penalty away. Billy Twelvetrees eschewing the kicking to touch tactic tried for a long range kick, unsuccessfully. And so half time appeared; I’d say with both teams in a position to go on and win. The start to the 2nd half was one strewn with errors by both sides; a poor kick to clear their lines by Gloucester gave Saracens a great attacking platform; a flick by Hodgson after a pass that was slightly too high saw Brad Barritt run through, as the move progressed Hodgson kicked the ball to touch as his winger was missing; he had few options on his outside. Gloucester lost the ball on their lineout, but replacement 2nd row George Kruis was penalised of holding on. Again Saracens won the ball but knocked on; scrum = didn’t work and a free kick was awarded to Gloucester; I do at times wonder whether officials take the view of ‘it’s your turn now’ when scrums don’t quite go as they should! We had unpleasant football stylie shouts of ‘off, off’ after Billy Vunipola was interfered with as he took a high ball, he was touched no doubt about it, and it was a penalty, but really not a card! It’s not good to hear a crowd asking for a card for something fairly innocuous. Wigglesworth made a schoolboy error in not finding touch with his kick. Kelly Brown who had been quietly great stopped the Gloucester track in its tracks as he put in a huge tackle dislodging the ball as he did so. Gloucester did have the next scoring opportunity as they were awarded a penalty after Chris Ashton was deemed to have made another deliberate knock on; he fared better than he did at Bath as the yellow card stayed in the referee’s pocket; yes the ball as knocked on but it was in the act of making a tackle rather than an attempted interception. Grieg Laidlaw kicked and added 3 points. A this point I have to confess I seem to have missed a Saracens penalty as I was taking my notes :-). Having had shouts of ‘off, off’ Will Fraser was lucky not to see yellow himself after he ran into a Gloucester player in the air as he was catching the ball; Fraser is a truly talented player, a silly piece of play but one that wasn’t too damaging for the player hit or Saracens. A penalty further down the field as Saracens went in at the side of a ruck gave Laidlaw another 3 points.
Twelvetrees had another long range kick at goal, and another miss; I have to say again I’m not liking the shouting abuse at players by crowds; cheering missed kicks feels very football to me! Alex Goode ad entered the fray and one of his 1st contributions was to kick the ball straight out; no harm was don as Gloucester failed to capitalise on the error. In fact Saracens went very close through Ernst Joubert after Goode, Hodgson and Ashton had combined in an exciting attack. In the build up Nick Wood – he of the red mist last season – pulled Alex Goode back; he saw a card but this time yellow. It felt inevitable that Saracens would make the most of their numerical advantage; having seen captain Hargreaves score a try in the mode of a winger; he became provider as he broke through the Gloucester defence, Chris Ashton was running on his shoulder and he ran in to score. I’ve not always been a champion on Ashton, especially in an England shirt, but I have to say he deserved the try for the work he’d been putting in, particularly in the 2nd half. Charlie Hodgson added the extras to give the home team a 9 point lead.
Another Saracens kick was pulled all the way back as the waiting Gloucester player caught the ball with a foot in touch, again they failed to take advantage of the resulting territory. Another spell of errors on both sides occurred with a stand out play by Billy Vunipola and most amazingly a delicate kick to touch by 2nd rower turned back Alastair Hargreaves! Charlie Hodgson took the long range kick option when Gloucester gave away a penalty for going offside. Unlike Twelvetrees attempts the kick had both the direction and distance; Saracens it what looked like an unassailable lead. Gloucester however had other plans and finished the game on the attack gaining themselves a bonus point after Tom Savage broke through the Saracens defence running to the line largely untroubled. The kick seemed to be one of the easiest of the afternoon; but James Hook failed to score. The game finished Saracens 28 Gloucester Rugby 21. A 5th win from 6 games from Saracens and a much improved effort by Gloucester. I’d be very interested to see the error count for Gloucester in the 2nd half; the result may well have been different if they’re decision making and handling had been better.