Saracens open new home with win
February 16, 2013
Saracens prevailed on their new artificial pitch
Saracens celebrated their Aviva Premiership debut at Allianz Park by demolishing Exeter with a rare four-try victory.
Before today the 2011 champions had run in only 14 tries in as many games - the lowest number in the league - but Mako Vunipola crossed twice and Charlie Hodgson and Matt Stevens also touched down in a bonus-point win.
It was a ringing endorsement for the artificial pitch at Saracens' new £24million ground in Barnet, which was staging its second match but the first in front of a capacity 10,000 crowd.
The only potential cloud hanging over the £500,000 surface designed specifically for rugby union was the terrible place kicking displays produced by fly-halves Hodgson and Gareth Steenson. Between them they missed six shots at goal and 18 points before the interval, although normal service resumed for Hodgson in the second half when his sights had been readjusted.
Rampaging England prop Vunipola finished man of the match after spearheading an impressive win that underlines Saracens' title credentials and drives another nail into the coffin of Exeter's play-off aspirations.
Saracens were missing their England contingent of Chris Ashton, Owen Farrell and Brad Barritt, but they were barely missed right from the start when an early chance to score arrived. Hodgson charged down Steenson's clearance, but when the ball reached Joel Tomkins he sent a poor pass to James Short and the overlap was wasted.
Hodgson and Steenson took it in turns to miss penalties before a bulldozing run from Vunipola placed Saracens back on to the front foot.
Exeter's scrum was suffering but fortunately for the Chiefs Hodgson was enduring a torrid start to the afternoon from the kicking tee as he missed two more penalties, one of which was virtually in front of the posts.
The sin-binning of full-back Luke Arscott for killing the ball left Exeter a man down, but they still drew first blood on the scoreboard when Steenson landed three points.
His confidence shaken, Hodgson chose to find touch instead of accepting a kickable shot at goal and Saracens were rewarded as the former England fly-half scored the opening try.
Inside centre Jason Shoemark had become involved at the breakdown and when the ball was spun wide there was a gap in Exeter's midfield which Hodgson jinked his way through, escaping Ian Whitten in the process, before converting.
The gap should have been reduced to a single point close to half time but Steenson then missed two penalties, the second of which was routine. It was a disappointing way for Exeter to finish the half given they had battered the home line in impressive fashion without crossing.
Hodgson made it two successive kicks shortly after the interval with his first penalty, before converting Saracens' second try.
The quick wits of Vunipola enabled the home side to pinch a turnover and his pack then took control, rumbling upfield until Stevens crashed over from short range. It was then Vunipola's turn to cross after Short had forged a path close to the line and when Hodgson added the extras, it was becoming a rout for Exeter.
Good hands from Tomkins and David Strettle allowed Vunipola to cross for his second in the 70th minute, before flanker Richard Baxter slipped over with the help of an obstruction from a team-mate in the last meaningful act of the match.
Saracens' director of rugby Mark McCall was impressed with the atmosphere at his side's new home and was pleased with how his team responded to the challenge of playing on the artificial pitch.
"It's great to start like that, scoring four tries," McCall said. "It was a great atmosphere. We've all been to Vicarage Road over the last couple of years and it wasn't like that. There was a real atmosphere during the warm up and the crowd really got behind the team.
"It was a quick game and our players enjoyed it. They were saying in the changing room afterwards that they really enjoyed the experience. The pitch feels good and I don't think there was anything to be negative about. We didn't have reset scrums."
Exeter head coach Rob Baxter had no immediate complaints with the surface, but was more scathing of his team's performance.
"We got taught a few lessons in a few areas today, which isn't normally an issue for us," Baxter said. "Saracens' physicality at the breakdown, line speed and nous at controlling territory was better.
"When you play against Saracens those things exacerbate very quickly. You don't tend to get away with anything other than a very high level performance against them. At half-time we shouldn't have been as close as we were and in some areas our performance wasn't good enough today."
Saracens marked their first league match at Allianz Park with a fullhouse of 10,000 © Getty Images
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