Sarries battle to home quarter
January 22, 2012
Saracens wing David Strettle dives in to score just after the break
© Getty Images
Saracens had to dig deep for a 26-20 victory over Benetton Treviso in their Heineken Cup clash at the Stadio Comunale di Mongio on Sunday and were rewarded with a home quarter-final against Top 14 giants Clermont Auvergne.
Needing just a point to safeguard their passage through to the knock-out stages, the English heavyweights laboured against the Italian outfit and had to erase a 17-13 half-time deficit before pulling clear in the second-half.
Mouritz Botha and David Strettle both touched down for Sarries and Owen Farrell added 16 points with the boot. Mark McCall's men are now the only English side left in contention in Europe's top tournament, but will know that they will have up their game several notches when they tackle Clermont with a home semi-final up for grabs.
They came into the match hoping for a bonus point win to seal top spot in Pool 5 and a home quarter-final, but Treviso, unbeaten in their previous two pool games at home, were in no mood to lie down. Farrell struck first blood for the visitors with a penalty after 10 minutes but they were rocked on their heels when Robert Barbieri dotted down for the opening try moments later, which was converted by Kris Burton.
Sarries responded impressively and hit back with a try of their own, Botha barging over from close range after the Saracens forwards had pummelled the home pack. Farrell made no mistake with the conversion but again the visitors were found wanting in defence, and conceded a second try more or less off the restart.
Barbieri was once again instrumental, punching a massive hole in the Saracens midfield before the ball was spun wide to Tommaso Iannone, who touched down in the corner. Burton added the conversion, and then an opportunistic drop goal to leave Treviso with a 17-10 lead 25 minutes in.
Things went from bad to worse from Saracens after they lost both Kelly Brown and Steve Borthwick to injury in quick succession, and with Pool rivals Biarritz by this stage 17-0 up against the Ospreys, the wheels were in serious danger of coming off.
Farrell reduced the deficit to four points just before the break, but at half-time Saracens' cup prospects were still looking touch and go. Thirty seconds into the second half, however, the game took a seismic swing when Strettle blocked down an attempted clearance and strolled his way over the line for a gift-wrapped try.
Farrell converted and then traded penalties with Burton to keep his side just ahead at 23-20. Irish veteran Peter Stringer then came to the rescue for Saracens, somehow holding up Antonio Pavanello when Treviso looked certain to touch down for a third time.
Tobias Botes, meanwhile, looked to have scored a perfectly good try, but it was mysteriously overruled by stand-in referee John Carvill, who had replaced the injured Alain Rolland in the first half.
Saracens at this stage were hanging on by their finger nails, but the accuracy of Farrell allowed them to keep the scoreboard ticking over, another three-pointer on the hour mark stretching the lead to six points. Rather than kicking on in search of the bonus point which would have guaranteed their status as third seeds, Saracens spent most of the final quarter on the back foot simply trying to protect their lead, which they just about managed to do.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
The tone was set early on in Dublin as a more clinical Ireland made England pay. All is not lost, however, argues Phil Vickery
Monday Maul takes in retirement talk, England reshuffles, France's unfair advantage and Scotland's communication breakdown
John Griffiths takes an analytical look at Week 3 of ESPN Scrum's Fantasy Rugby game - who should you have picked?
Ireland coach Joe Schmidt won the tactical battle and set his team on course for a shot at the Grand Slam. Tom Hamilton reports from Dublin