Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Premiership Review - Saracens 22 - 6 Leicester Tigers

I said before the game that these two teams have a tendency to cancel each other out.  Not necessarily through poor attacking play, but through brutal defence and a lack of ambition with the ball in hand, like two heavyweight boxers circling in the first round of a championship bout, with both knowing that the other has a hammer of a right hook that will send them flailing if they get too close.  But, as it turns out, one of them has started to pick up delicate hands and a weak chin – surprising in what was effectively a pre-playoff playoff, with Saracens occupying third spot and Leicester hot on their tails. 

And it was the Tigers that made a more impressive start, moving six points ahead after 11 minutes through two Burns penalties which rewarded some composed and efficient phase-play.  It wasn't spectacular, it wasn't pretty, but with the likes of Jordan Crane, Tom Youngs and Seremai Bai rumbling into gaps – without actually splitting the Sarries defence open – it at least got the hosts moving backwards and breaking the offside line.  Burns has not been given the platform he deserves this year, being unable to rely showcase the creativity that once made him – and not those upstarts Henry Slade and George Ford – the darling of English rugby.

Saracens appeared surprisingly sluggish in comparison, creating little in attack and being out-thought tactically by Burns and his half-back partner Ben Youngs behind a Leicester pack that showed set-piece diligence, particularly in the scrum, where Dan Cole was exerting no small amount of dominance over his England mucker, Mako Vunipla.  The crowd perhaps began to wonder if the men in black may have been thinking of a certain big fixture next weekend instead of focussing on the present.  Marcelo Bosch tried to relive the past (well his heroics last week against Racing Metro) midway through the first-half, but he skewed it horribly wide, and Saracens' sense of frustration was summed up after Kelly Brown made a powerful midfield run, Billy Vunipola took the move on, but skipper Alistair Hargreaves spilled possession in open play.  Frustration perhaps, but the positive news for them was that they had managed to get on the outside of the Tigers very easily, far too easily as far as the visitors were concerned…but being caught narrow has been a hallmark of their defence all season.

Saracens finally began to enjoy a spell of pressure as half-time approached, despite being largely out-fought at the breakdown by Julian Salvi and co, but full-back Alex Goode hit the post with a simple penalty inside Leicester's 22 into a strong wind.  But then came the game-changer.  As Chris Ashton once again got on the Tigers' outside, the former England man chipped ahead, only for Mat Tait to cover superbly and scamper away…with the help of the previously-excellent Tom Youngs, who barrelled into the flyer to send him, er, flying, and the hooker promptly earned a yellow card from referee Matt Carley, handing the home side a one-man advantage as the interval approached.

And Saracens made the Tigers pay, exerting considerable scrum pressure – against the grain considering what had happened so far in the game – that reaped its reward (after 4 resets) when Billy Vunipola powered over from close range, before Hodgson's conversion secured a 7-6 half-time lead, despite being way behind on the possession and carries stats.

But with Tom Youngs still off the pitch, Leicester had their work cut out, and Saracens did not spare them as they collected a second try following Ashton's strong run, with the move finished off by Bosch in the left hand corner. Tom Youngs then returned, but before Leicester had even had a chance to regroup and try to muster a counterpunch, Chris Wyles touched down wide out as the home side eased clear. It was looking all too easy for Saracens against the former champions, who in turn are beginning more and more to look like they aren't quite the heavyweight contenders they once were.

Leicester's early promise had evaporated, with their cause was not helped by scrummaging cornerstone Marcos Ayerza limping off in agony after he attempted to tackle Bosch. Entering the final quarter, Leicester huffed and puffed as they looked for a consolation score, yet the Tigers lacked attacking flair and invention, confirming a dismal strike-rate this season that has seen only Premiership basement club London Welsh score fewer league tries than them.  It was a stark difference between the two sides – from the comfort of my arm chair, it was easy to spot exactly which Tigers player the ball was going to go to before they actually received it; if I can do that, how easy is it for one of the meanest defences in league?  The Tigers were frankly as threatening as Mother Theresa.  Saracens on the other hand ran from depth, at pace, and constantly had options, keeping the defence guessing, and they deserved a fourth try and a bonus point, although this reward ultimately eluded them.  The Tigers did go close, after Lawrence Pearce and Logovi'i Mulipola added some serious punch to the attack and Niki Goneva got within inches of either corner, but in truth they didn't deserve it – the scoreline of 22 – 6 was exactly fair, despite the visitors dominating possession for large swathes of the game.

The Tigers look out of ideas.  Sarries, on the other hand, have got plenty of ideas on where their season might yet end up.

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