Leinster edge out Saracens
October 16, 2010
Saracens' Schalk Brits takes a fall during his side's loss to Leinster at Wembley Stadium
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Leinster underlined their Heineken Cup credentials with a hard-fought 25-23 victory over Saracens in their Pool 2 clash at Wembley Stadium.
A virtuoso display from fly-half Jonathan Sexton - who contributed all his side's points courtesy of a try, six penalties and a conversion - and a superb defensive effort carried the Irish province to a priceless victory that threatens to de-rail Saracens' euro challenge before it has really begun.
A try and four penalties from an increasingly assured Alex Goode kept the hosts in touch after fly-half Derick Hougaard was sidelined with what looked to be a serious Achilles injury but they failed to find the cutting edge to open up their more experienced rivals who were marshalled superbly by No.8 Jamie Heaslip who led by example in the absence of inspirational duo Brian O'Driscoll and Leo Cullen. Back-to-back victories leave Leinster in control of the pool with win-less Saracens now facing a mountain to climb if they are to progress to the knock-out stages.
Leinster began brightly in front of a bumper 45,892 crowd at the traditional home of English football and were rewarded for their early endeavour when Sexton slotted a long-range penalty with a little help of the cross bar. Hougaard also hit the woodwork when given the chance to land an almost immediate reply but his effort bounced off the post before Leinster scrambled the ball away.
But the boot of Hougaard continued to heap pressure on the visitors and laid the platform for the opening try of the game. The Saracens forwards took up the challenge with flanker Andy Saull going close before the ball was recycled to Hougaard whose long bounce pass found Goode and he sped over for the score. Hougaard failed with the conversion attempt but a superb kick chase from hooker Schalk Brits soon drew a penalty against Leinster fullback Rob Kearney and this time the Saracens No.10 made no mistake.
Leinster rallied strongly with prop Cian Healey driving to within inches of the Saracens line only for a desperate tackle from Saracens captain Steve Borthwick and the Television Match Official to deny him a score. Leinster looked to build again from the scrum and although Saracens held firm, they did so illegally which allowed Sexton to slot a straightforward penalty having hit the woodwork again with a drop goal attempt. And the Irish international had his third penalty five minutes later after Brits was penalised at the breakdown.
Hougaard responded with his second penalty from straight in front but the tit-for-tat exchange continued with Sexton nailing his latest effort after Saracens' Mouritz Botha felt the wrath of the referee. One final penalty in a painfully stop-start opening was thumped into touch to bring an end to a half that didn't lack in terms of intensity but failed to spark into life. Leinster's rush defence forced some uncharacteristic errors from Saracens in the early stages of the second half and a cross-kick from Sexton to winger Shane Horgan threatened to open up the hosts but in the end they had to settle for a penalty that the fly-half sent sailing between the posts.
A serious-looking injury to Hougaard then forced Saracens into a re-think with Noah Cato entering the fray and Goode stepping into No.10. Leinster also had to ring the changes when centre Luke Fitzgerald limped off to be replaced by Fergus McFadden.
Saracens continued to get very little change out of the Leinster defence and their impotence in attack was punished emphatically by their rivals. Scrum-half Eoin Reddan and Sexton put width on the ball in midfield and a burst of pace by winger Isa Nacewa carried him past the attempted tackle of Saracens' David Strettle. Centre Gordon D'Arcy then loomed up in support and he fed Sexton who raced away to score in the corner.
A penalty against Leinster's Sean O'Brien at the lineout allowed Goode to reduce the arrears to eight points as the game approached the hour mark and there was further cause for hope when referee Christophe Berdos finally ran out of patience and showed the visitors' hooker Richardt Strauss a yellow card. Goode slotted the subsequent penalty but yet another infringement - this time against Brits - allowed Sexton to add to his personal tally and edge his side further ahead.
Saracens turned down their next three-point opportunity in favour of kicking to the corner for the lineout and were made to regret that decision. As a result it was no surprise to see Borthwick point to the posts when the whistle went in their favour with just ten minutes remaining. Goode's successful kick set up a tense finish as long-term absentee Cullen made his season bow off the bench.
A scrum deep inside Leinster's half gave Saracens a valuable attacking platform and the visitors' increasingly alarming penalty count enabled Goode to make it a two-point game with just five minutes remaining.
Saracens peppered the resolute Leinster defence as the clock ran down in the hope of earning a position from where they could win the game. The forwards led the charge before the backs lent their support in an epic spell incorporating over 30 phases but a knock on brought an end to the game and dealt their euro hopes what would appear to be a near-fatal blow.
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Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum.