Having travelled to 5 countries to watch 5 Six Nations games the culmination of the Championship saw a return to Premiership Rugby. The competition had been sprinkled in between the national games with mixed results for those with players missing. The window had been particularly harsh on Bath – they faced Saracens, Northampton and Exeter with their depleted squad and lost all 3 games.
With 3 wins for Exeter against Harlequins, Bath (of course) and London Welsh and with Saracens dropping points against Sale, Exeter leap frogged both teams to go 2nd in the League. And so the day started with Saracens lying 3rd with Bath in 4th. Note I haven’t mentioned Northampton Saints – they seem to be in a fairly unassailable position at the top of the league.
Saracens competitors Harlequins have had a mixed season to say the least – winning 8 of their 17 games, losing the other 9 (not many draws in RU). One of those losses came early in the season when Saracens beat them at home 39 nil – I disgraced myself that day – leaping in the air when Charlie Hodgson scored an interception try. I was sat amongst Quins season ticket holders and had to apologise profusely – yet not promise I wouldn’t repeat!
I am a Saracens supporter, but also have a soft spot for Quins (amongst others) I hoped Wembley would be a far more balanced affair, I’m not a fan of one sided whoopings.
We had the now standard pomp and ceremony with Pixie Lott taking centre stage before the game, accompanied by what must have been hundreds of dancers. The acoustics weren’t the best and it was quite hard to make out what Ms Lott was singing!
Game time arrived and George Robson emerged for Quins as he made his 200th appearance – some feat – he’s been at the club for 11 years but will say his goodbyes at the end of the season as he heads to French Top 14 side Oyannax. A few little lads booed as he came on – they really needed to be told we were watching rugby, not football. Not that I’m sure football fans would boo such a landmark.
Charlie Hodgson making his 100th appearance came out to cheers, it’s wonderful to hear that his lovely wife Daisy gave birth to twins this week, making them the proud parents of 5 children under 7 – wow! That’s pretty amazing! Congratulations to them both!
On to the rugby – there was a lot of expectation from crowd largely supporting Saracens, that crowd was silenced however when Jack Clifford charged down Neil De Kock’s clearing boys kick, Clifford ran in to score the 1st try with 30 seconds on the clock! Not quite the start the ‘home’ team had imagined. Quins have a habit of producing quality back rowers and Clifford, 22 is no exception, he has star quality!
Saracens were given a good attacking platform when Marland Yarde kicked the ball straight out pulling play back, David Strettle made a great break once the ball was back in play, but missed Chris Ashton with a fairly wild pass.
Quins cleared the ball but it was Marcelo Bosch who ran through a gap between George Robson and Charlie Matthews – his break set the Saracens backs free, he passed to Ashton, next in line was De Kock who passed the ball to Chris Wyles he ran in to score under the posts. Charlie Hodgson converted the try where Evans had earlier missed.
David Strettle in fine form (I nearly typed fettle 🙂 made another break from within the Saracens half, he kicked the ball ahead for Ashton to chase, Ugo Monye got there first but was isolated. He held on and held on, and held on. The result of that was not only a penalty but also a 10 minute rest for Monye.
Hodgson converted the penalty to extend the Saracens lead. Dave Ward, won a penalty for Quins moments later showing his mettle as one near the top of the list of turnovers made. Evans slotted the ball over the posts to close the gap to 2.
There really is a need to play the referee in front of you as well as the team, Quins failed to do that, they were penalised in the middle of the field, Danny Care threw the ball away and the penalty was marched forward by Wayne Barnes. Hodgson failed to capitalise but it was a schoolboy error by Quins.
Saracens came back very quickly after the miss as Backs and Forwards combined to take the ball forward, Jamie George making a notable break before Chris Ashton found himself ball in hand on his wing, he put in a grubber kick, chasing the ball down he beat Care to it to score a great try. That try put Ashton on a personal tally of 13 for the season alongside Strettle, both are doing for their club what they aren’t being picked to do for their country.
We had a comedy moment as Mr Barnes became entangled in a tackle in the middle of the pitch, looking at it again on the replay it looks like he tried to take out Ward and George Kruis at the same time! Saracens fans will recall that Barnes is the man Schalk Brits ran into earlier in the season – it caused a ripple of laughter then too!
The record attendance of 84,068 was announced just before the half hour, I will be cynical as I was last year, there seemed to be lots of empty seats and there was a huge choir as well as the dance troupe – but, that’s not to take away from Saracens what a feat it is to get that number of people watching club rugby.
Kyle Sinckler when down after what looked like a dangerous tackle by Jacques Burger – the TMO was called into action as Burger hit Sinckler’s leg with his shoulder, it was deemed that the intention to engage his arms was there but he simply missed.
Quins conceded their 7th penalty with 34 minutes on the clock, Alex Goode stepped up and added 3 points to Saracens’ total.
Saracens lost their captain just before half time after Alistair Hargreaves collided with his won team mate Jackson Wray, he left for a concussion assessment which saw Maro Itoje come into the fray. As exciting a prospect as Jack Clifford is for Quins so is Itoje for Saracens, and indeed as they both are for England! The future certainly looks bright!
Half time came with the score on Saracens 21 Quins 8 – a relieving whistle for Quins.
The first half saw a display of rugby tennis, which from a spectators viewpoint really is never a good thing, Alex Goode put paid to that kicking the ball to touch. Danny Care made a break, linking through, he kicked the ball forward running into Goode as he went, Goode turned his shoulder but he isn’t required to move out of the way and Barnes deemed the collision to be no issue.
Nick Evans was the first to add points in the 2nd half with a penalty close the gap to 10.
Saracens have at times been remiss in not winning with a try bonus point – they didn’t make that same error in this Wembley spectacular. Try number 3 came as they moved the ball quickly from a lineout, Hodgson showed his class in starting the move before Wyles ran through, passing to Ashton who ran down his wing to score.
Quins won a penalty in the scrum, Evans put in a great kick to touch giving his team a lineout on the Saracens line. Quins went through 11 phases of play before wining a penalty, this time Evans kicked at goal and scored the 3 points. I’d say the commentators forgot that Joe Marler is in fact captain of Quins rather than Chris Robshaw, the decision was Marlers’ with his fly half of course.
We had another spell of kicking practice before Richard Wigglesworth put a kick he could chase in, which stopped the tennis I’m glad to say!
Ashton went close to scoring his hat trick try on his birthday weekend but failed to take the pass from Hodgson. Ashton was at the centre of some controversy when he tackled Matt Hopper, he lifted Hooper beyond the horizontal which saw him awarded his 10th yellow card of his Premiership career. Hopper landed on his shoulder, and Aston didn’t drive him, but I disagree (as I often do) with Austin Healey – a yellow card was a fair result.
With 8 minutes to go, down to 14 men and a 14 point gap that could have been a problem; however this is a Saracens team writing their peak at the right time. Wiggles worth put in a box kick for Strettle to chase,he kicked the ball on (his Manchester City days coming back to him) and Chris Wyles scored his 2nd try! Goode added the extras and Saracens had their bonus point try.
Both sets of forwards had put a good day at the office, but it was to be a Saracens man who scored the last try of the game as Billy Vunipola scored on the last play of the game. Again Goode converted which saw the final score as Saracens 42 Harlequins 14.
Saracens ended the weekend in 2nd place a point ahead of Bath, with Leicester Tigers sneaking up behind them. Harlequins have a lot of work to do to make 7th place ahead of Sale Sharks who sit 8 points ahead of them.
More photos here – http://debsknigsport.com/2015/03/29/saracens-v-harlequins-event-34/