Solid Sarries derail Exiles' charge
December 27, 2008
London Irish flanker Declan Danaher's try was not enough for his side at Vicarage Road
© Getty Images
Saracens battled to a crucial home win against league-leaders London Irish thanks to a first-half try from scrum-half Moses Rauluni and 11 points from fly-half Glen Jackson.
Irish had been drawing plaudits from around the rugby world for their expansive style of play before the game, a refreshing change of pace that has powered Toby Booth's side to the top of the Premiership tree. Saracens themselves sent out their fair share of exciting prospects, with hype surrounding both wing Noah Cato and full-back Alex Goode pre-game.
Irish made the better start at a bustling Vicarage Road, with skipper Bob Casey dominating the kick-off and securing safe ball and a penalty following a late tackle.
Some sloppy play from Irish allowed Saracens immediate field position and an eminently kickable penalty for Jackson however. The Kiwi sliced his kick wide, and the early probing from both sides suggested that any missed opportunity could have later ramifications. Jackson's boot took control in the early stages, finding pinpoint touches behind the Irish back-three, allowing the aggressive Saracens line-out to put pressure on the Exiles.
A powerful blindside break from Exiles openside Steffon Armitage stretched the Saracens defence after ten minutes, and following fine support running from Seilala Mapusua and Shane Geraghty fullback Peter Hewat also missed his opening shot at goal as Saracens were pinged for killing the ball.
Saracens enjoyed their first extended spell of pressure on the quarter-hour, but Irish's aggressive rush defence killed their chances to offload and stifled any attempts to put pace onto the ball. A knock on from an Exiles hand gave Sarries a scrum on their opponent's 22, and as the Irish front-row hit the deck, Jackson notched his first three-points of the afternoon.
Almost as soon as the game was back underway, a poor kick from Jackson and a horrendous chasing effort from Saracens allowed Exiles wing Sailosi Tagicakibau to lope forward on a trademark run into space before popping a pass to Hewat, who steamed down the wing. He drew the final defender before releasing Declan Danaher under the sticks. Clinical and quick, this was a try that exemplified the philosophy that has produced so much success for Irish this term.
In their eagerness to compete after their score, the Exiles defence flew up as a kick from Noah Cato bounced in front of Tagicakibau and Saracens were gifted another three points. Irish were themselves then handed three points after Cencus Johnston was penalised for boring in at scrum-time.
Johnston soon had his revenge, as Glen Jackson forced Irish scrum-half Paul Hodgson to concede a five-metre scrum. A powerful Sarries drive opened up space for scrum-half Rauluni, a late replacement for the ill Neil de Kock, to dart past a couple of weak tackles to score.
The home fans' flags were flying at 13-10, only for Jackson to slice a kick straight out and hand the impetus back to London Irish. Another powerful run from Armitage allowed Seveali'i to draw in Saracens wing Cato, but his pass outside to Topsy Ojo only found touch.
With the scores remaining unchanged at the half-way point, it was Saracens who had the first chance to strike in the second period only for Jackson to fluff his second kick of the afternoon. Saracens dominated possession in the early moments, with Irish completely unable to find their rhythm.
A defensive lapse from Cato allowed Irish field position, only for their handling to let them down as Hodgson spilled the ball at the base of the scrum before bundling over. Saracens had been penalised for offside however, and Hewat slotted an easy penalty to tie up the scores at 13-13.
Following early stuttering phases from the league leaders, the tide began to turn as their forwards finally provided a sufficient platform from which to release their expressive backs. But just as the visitors looked to be putting concerted pressure on the home side, a switch to Adam Powell released the Saracens back-line. Following multiple phases and fine work from Springbok flanker Wikus van Heerden, Jackson was given another opportunity to put his side back into the lead.
With the score at 16-13, Exiles attack coach Mike Catt was introduced into the fray in place of Tagicakibau, with the veteran slotting in at fly-half.
Catt's influence could do little as too many passes went to ground from Irish, with their usual accuracy replaced by a nervous energy as they chased the killer score in the final ten minutes. Geraghty, continually forced behind the advantage line by the lack of passing clarity from his team-mates, struggled to assert any forward momentum. A break from Seveali'i looked to have provided impetus but he knocked on when attempting to collect his own chip and Saracens were again handed control.
As Cencus Johnston again collapsed in the Saracens front-row however, Irish were handed a chance to draw level through the boot of Hewat. The Australian's kick drifted aimlessly wide in the wind, and Saracens closed out a vital home win.
Saracens director of rugby Eddie Jones urged his side to capitalise on the win. "What we need to gain is the belief that the way were are playing the game and the talent we have got in the team is good enough to win the competition," Jones said. "We are good enough to win it, we have got to start believing it. They are the top team in the league, we beat them today and there is no reason why we can't go and do that but we have got to back ourselves."
London Irish boss Toby Booth reflected, "We are not in a happy place at the moment, to be honest. We contributed to our own downfall, it's very disappointing. The Premiership is a very competitive place, if you are beaten by a better side you can put your hands up.
"Sarries were very, very good in certain aspects, they bullied us at the contact area. We couldn't get any rhythm or control. Our performances this week and last week are worlds apart - it's very disappointing. It's very difficult to play attacking rugby without the ball, we will have to look at the tape to see if that was done legally or not and take it from there."
Saracens: Goode; Ratuvou, Sorrell, Powell, Cato; Jackson, Rauluni; Lloyd, Ongaro, Johnston, Borthwick, Jack, van Heerden, Saull, Owen.
Replacements: A Farrell for Powell (74), Visagie for Johnston (74), Skirving for Saull (72). Not Used: Kyriacou, Vyvyan, Wilson, Penney.
London Irish: Hewat; Ojo, Seveali'i, Mapusua, Tagicakibau; Geraghty, Hodgson; Dermody, Paice, Lea'aetoa, Hudson, Casey, Danaher, S Armitage, Hala'ufia.
Replacements: Catt for Tagicakibau (60), Lalanne for Hodgson (72), D. Murphy for Dermody (63), Coetzee for Paice (62), Corbisiero for Lea'aetoa (53), Roche for Hudson (60), Thorpe for Hala'ufia (74).
Ref: Chris White (RFU)
Firdose Moonda talks to Rob Louw about the difficulties of being a South African touring New Zealand at the height of Apartheid
Huw Richards profiles French forward Walter Spanghero, a man who even rugby's hard men thought was a tough nut
"To be part of the Commonwealth Games, I'd wear anything. I'd wear a clown suit." Tom Hamilton talks to Scotland's Sean Lamont
Scrum Sevens looks back at how rugby has fared in both the early Olympics and the past four Commonwealth Games