With a gap in the Premiership Rugby calendar as the Six Nations competition approaches Saracens took the opportunity to set up another match with South African opponents. The Sanlam Challenge shield would be the prize for the winner.
This was the 3rd such game, in January 2014 the Natal Sharks came over – that game was a close one and the score finished on Saracens 23 Sharks 15. Next up were Western Province in November 2014 – that went the way of the home team, but with something of a bigger gap. The result was Saracens 46 Western Province 22.
The Blue Bulls brought with them a team full of superstars with 15 Springboks amongst their number, including one Pierre Spies making a long awaited comeback from injury. Saracens fielded a mixed team, of first team starters, Academy players and I’ve just spotted Academy Coach Don Barrell on the bench!
The Bulls had come form 30-32C heat, into one of the coldest and thoroughly unpleasant winter days we’ve had this winter! Would that have an effect on how they played?
Jackson Wray emerged carrying his new baby daughter – playing his 100th game for Saracens he takes his place on the wall i the 100 Club. Tim Wigglesworth was the referee for the match.
The Bulls received the ball and showed some early intent as they drove the ball up the pitch, the clearing kick from Francois Hougaard was poor giving Saracens a line out in the Bulls half. The 1st scrum had the same effect – this time showing Saracens’ intent as they drove the Bulls up, winning a penalty on the Bulls put in.
A 2nd penalty awarded against the Bulls saw Saracens drive towards the line, but the Bulls turned the ball over. That wasn’t to their benefit as Saracens again won the penalty, they took the scrum again, and repeated on the next scrum penalty. Next up was a free kick and a talking to Deon Stegman the Bulls captain – then, yet another scrum! And then….. the scrum moved but was gin nowhere so yes, another scrum! This is probably boring to read, I can tell you it was boring to watch too!
The ball eventually emerged and Saracens spread the ball but made no ground. Ben Ransom made one of his breaks but Saracens got nowhere near the try line. They had a lot of possession in dangerous territory but to no avail.
The Blue Bulls had another chance to win their scrum, this time in the Saracens half- this time they were successful! The ball made it to Jamba Ulengoon the wing but he was pushed into touch. At the risk of looking t be a Ben Ransom fan (I did tip him as my one to watch in 2013) he took a kick through superbly and ran through to help clear the ball.
Neil De Kock thought he was on the way to the try line as the Bulls maintained their attack, but a penalty had already been awarded. The Bulls opted for the line out and showed their superior strength, they drove at some speed towards the line, Deon Stegman scored the 1st points of the afternoon. The kick was unsuccessful.
The Bulls had another line out close to the Saracens line, this time Saracens put more men in to defend the maul leaving them exposed. Francois Hougaard took the ball from the back of the maul, and in Neil De Kock’s own words – ran over his opposing scrum half to score the 2nd try. Again the kick missed.
Watching the game again on the TV I can see how many empty seats there are, as it has been for the previous 2 games lots of season ticket holders choose not to attend – as a huge rugby fan I’ve been thrilled to be able to watch such high class opposition. The games have certainly drawn South Africans in numbers and the club out on South African fare to give them a home away from home afternoon.
The game hadn’t had too much excitement, a good break by Jan Serfontein was a delight to watch but the move was stopped in its tracks as Saracens were awarded a penalty. The next break was by Saracens, and yes, honestly it was Ben Ransom, he has a way of evading the tacklers – and made his way through several.
In a worrying moment Charlie Hodgson went down injured – With Owen Farrell injured and out for months it really has to be asked why Hodgson was risked in a friendly with a big game against Bath Rugby only 2 weeks away.
The Bulls were awarded a penalty on the stroke of half time as Saracens failed to roll away – this time Jacques-Loius Potgeiger kicked the ball straight through the middle of the posts. The 1st half had been a physical, attritional battle – the visitors came out on top and the teams went in with the score on Saracens 0 Blue Bulls 13.
The 2nd half was to yield a lot more points- those who lingered in the bar will have missed the 1st of those points. Jacques du Plessis made a great break through the Saracens line, aided by a couple of missed tackles – Hougaard went very close as the ball made it’s way to him from a huge pass cutting out several players – Hougaard popped the ball up to Jurgen Visser who scored in the corner. Potgeiger sent the conversion wide of the posts.
The Bulls were rampant and the next try was a forwards dominated try, Hanro Liebenberg diving over the line to score – the scary point listening to the commentary is that Liebenberg is a mere 19 years old! They know how to produce immense back row players in South Africa! The kick was an easier one and Potgeiger added the extras.
Saracens were to be next up on the scorecard – and at risk of sounding like a fully paid up member of the Ben Ransom fan club, he was instrumental – a superb pass from Charlie Hodgson came before the dummy and pass from Ransom – Chris Wyles was the benefactor and he put the ball down to score Saracens’ first points. Hodgson kicked the conversion virtually from the touch line.
Pierre Spies who has been out of rugby for 18 months through injury made a dream comeback, Jesse Kriel broke from deep within his own half largely untroubled by tacklers, the ball was passed out to JJ Engelbrecht, Spies was tracking on his shoulder he ran in to score. Hoogaard who had shifted from scrum half to wing had been instrumental in the run up. It’s unusual to see such a change of position but Hougaard looked world class in both! The score had moved to Saracens 7 Bulls 32 with the successful conversion.
A Blue Bulls scrum after Neil De Kock knocked the ball on, saw Saracens dominating again, in the one area of the game they had the upper hand, the ball almost flew out the back of the scrum and De Kock was the 1st to pounce, he kicked the ball and ran in to score, Hodgson added the extras to close the gap.
Saracens had a good go at battering the Bulls line, at the 1st attempt it was very well defended by the visitors, on the 2nd attempt Saracens were equal to the defence and Ernst Joubert picked the ball up diving over the line. Hodgson missed the kick this time but the score was looking more respectable.
The Bulls weren’t does with their scoring efforts, Saracens had no answer to another mighty rolling maul , they went at some speed again to score their 6th try through Nicolaas Hanse Van Rensburg – the conversion took the Bulls to 39.
Saracens were to have the last word however through none other than Jackson Wray – he started the game off and finished it with a try to the delight of his team mates. Just as the commentator was saying Saracens hadn’t breached the Bulls defence so he picked the ball up from the base of the scrum to run in over the line! Hodgson kicked the conversion.
The final score was Saracens 26 Blue Bulls 39 – a satisfactory warm up for the Bulls and a huge physical test for Saracens in the middle of a very busy season. For me, I got to be a fan and get my photo taken with 2 of my favourite players of all time – quite a thrill!