Anyone who knows me will know that I am not prone to underplaying things. Exaggerating stuff? Perhaps. Generally a tale that, at the first telling, will involve me bumbling over for scruffy a try in a pre-season friendly for a club in Kent Division 2, will eventually transform into a heroic last-gasp, cup-winning touchdown, resulting in me being carried off the pitch on the shoulders of my team-mates and then being quite literally bathed in champagne by some passing-by (but very impressed) members of the Swedish beach volleyball team. So perhaps it came as something as a surprise – to me, as much as anyone – that I had underplayed my pre-season prediction in stating that Sarries ‘may bully’ Quins on Friday night.
To be fair, who could have seen what was about to unfold at a packed out and expectant Stoop. Of course, we all know what Sarries have in their locker and we have seen them perform to devastating effect against the likes of Clermont and look a different class, but they looked surprisingly porous against Wasps the previous week, whilst Quins – who may not have been firing on all cylinders – looked pretty solid. Everything was pointing towards a tight encounter, even if the hosts had only managed to beat their London rivals once in the last 11 games.
Certainly, in the early stages there was plenty of physicality on show by both sides, with Billy Vunipola man-handling Joe Gray early on before Kyle Sinckler creamed Chris Ashton as the England winger picked what I have to say is probably the worst line in history – straight into a prop’s shoulder. That said, Sinckler stayed flopped on the wrong side of the ruck, allowing veteran fly-half Charlie Hodgson to land the first points of the game after 10 minutes.
The game was swiftly entering into a pattern. Quins would get hold of the ball and string a few phases together, but get nowhere as they were met by an aggressive wall of white as the Saracens defence swarmed all over them. They’d inevitably cough up the ball – mainly through Sinckler and Jordan Turner-Hall, who appeared to be adopting an interesting strategy of dropping as many simple passes as possible – or concede a penalty, with Sinckler again a main culprit. The signs were ominous and didn’t get any better when Matt Hopper was forced off with a hand injury to be replaced by the young (but electric) Charlie Walker.
Saracens, though, were biding their time and waiting to get their hands on the ball – and when they did, they looked far more threatening. Alex Goode and David Strettle combined sharply on the right to put in Scotsman Duncan Taylor, who had the simple task of coasting in for the game’s opening try – but Mike Brown had other ideas, superbly chasing back, making a hit and forcing the knock on right by the try line. Sarries earned another 3 points from a resulting scrum penalty, but it was still a welcome escape for the homes side.
That relief lasted all of three minutes, though, as Hodgson struck with his ‘Charge-down Charlie’ routine to block Nick Evans’ kick and stroll in for the game’s opening score. It is an issue Evans does have – he tends to take a huge stride before kicking, which gives the defence that extra second to pressurise him. A conversion and another penalty followed, and Quins were down by 16 – 0 after just half an hour and with one bloke (Hodgson) scoring all the points.
In the last 10 minutes, Quins finally earned themselves some territory, but it was clear that they were already getting desperate. Evans had missed a couple of kicks, Danny Care had foolishly tapped and ran from simple goal-kicking positions, only to get turned over – but it was Sarries’ defence that was the real cause of the hosts’ frustrations, with Brad Barritt and the magnificent Will Fraser dominating the collisions and the breakdown. Perhaps the good news – for England fans – was that the only blokes making any yards were Chris Robshaw and Marland Yarde, but it wasn’t enough to see them pick up any points, and they went down the tunnel 16 – 0 down at half time.
The second half didn’t get much better when Evans was unable to emerge for the restart, with Ben Botica taking his place and, although Hodgson was shown a yellow card for a deliberate knock on within the first couple of minutes, the Kiwi pushed another penalty attempt wide. The hosts couldn’t make the extra-man advantage count and in fact Goode added another 3 points during the 10 minute period, before things went from bad to worse as Walker – who had looked lively during his brief stint – was forced off with a leg injury, meaning young back-rower Jack Clifford was told to ‘have a go’ in the centres.
For the next 15 minutes though, it was Quins who bossed the territory, with new skipper Joe Marler (who looks like he should also be skippering a tug boat) insisting on kicks to the corner. But not only was Joe Gray’s throwing occasionally wayward, but Sarries’ defence was just too aggressive and too smart, even if skipper Alistair Hargreaves was sent to the bin by Wayne Barnes for playing the ball from an offside position – a harsh call when listening to the referee’s instructions during play on replays.
But it made no difference. Quins were simply being smashed at the breakdown and were unable to generate any forward momentum, despite having most of the ball, and they weren’t helped by poor decision making from key individuals, with Care in particular having a surprisingly bad day at the office. The hard line-speed from Sarries gave meaning to the term offensive-defence, and eventually – after 2 more Hodgson penalties – they gained their reward as Ollie Linday-Hague spilt a pass under pressure, the ball was hacked ahead, and Ashton raced past a snoozing (or, according to him, cramping) Yarde to touch down for another score. Owen Farrell, on for Hodgson, added the extras and 5 minutes later he was repeating the trick after Fraser had burrowed over for a deserved try after a powerful drive by the pack.
It left the final score at a staggering 0 – 39 to the visitors. Saracens stunning, Harlequins humiliated. What has it told us? Well, Quins need to find a way to grind out metres because, when Plan A (play at 1 million miles an hour) doesn’t work, there doesn’t seem to be a Plan B. A real enforcer – perhaps at number 8 or second row, would go a long way, if they can bring somebody in. For Saracens – well, we’ve seen this before. The shock on the Quins’ player’s faces was a replica of the reaction of those in the white of Clermont in last season’s Heineken Cup semi-final. When that defence really gets going, it’s a joy to watch (unless you have the ball) – what’s worrying for everyone else, is that they seemed to have found that gear, that level, that nobody else has, at this early stage in the season.
What else was happening in the Premiership at the weekend?
Bath Rugby 53 – 26 London Welsh: As predicted, Bath did hammer the Premiership newboys but Welsh, to their credit, picked up a bonus point themselves by scoring 4 tries. The hosts crossed through Chris Cook, Semesa Rokoduguni (2), Jonathan Joseph (2), Leroy Houston and Carl Fearns, with the Exiles having Pete Browne, Seb Stegmann and Seb Jewell (2) to thank for their scores in an entertaining game at the Rec.
Gloucester 34 – 27 Sale Sharks: The Cherry and Whites recovered from their nightmare opening display to launch an impressive comeback against the Sharks and claim the first win of David Humphrey’s reign. Johnny May, Rob Cook and a penalty try all contributed to the celebrations at Kingsholm, but the Sharks scored 4 tries to claim a bonus point. Danny Cipriani scored a fine solo try after he had claimed assists for scores from Tom Arscott, Chris Cusiter and Luke Mclean.
Exeter Chiefs 20 – 24 Leicester Tigers: The Tigers came away with a scrappy but valuable win over the Chiefs at Sandy Park, despite the hosts looking more fluent throughout. Exeter had led at half time through scores from Dave Ewers and Haydn Thomas, but tries from Anthony Allen and Ben Youngs, accompanied by the boot of Freddie Burns, saw the East Midlander’s home.
Newcastle Falcons 18 – 20 London Irish: The Falcons slumped to their 18th consecutive Premiership defeat, despite outscoring their opponents three tries to two. The hosts scored through Josh Furno, Scott Wilson and Sinoti Sinoti, with Fergus Mulchrone and Andy Fenby crossing for the Exiles, but 6 missed kicks from Juan Pablo Socino proved costly.
Wasps 20 – 16 Northampton Saints: Wasps caused the upset of the weekend by turning over last-weekend’s big winners, Saints, at Adams Park, with a superb display. Two tries in three minutes did the business for the hosts, with an Ashley Johnson intercept and a Tom Varndell kick-and-chase providing the platform for the win, despite a late effort from Ben Foden.