Saints on their knees…
January 23 2018
But Sarries are in no mood to hear their prayers.
Driving to today’s game, I was mulling over the many mind-set permutations that would have a bearing on the afternoon. Would Saints kick on with their Gaffney honeymoon? Would they give their all as part four of their recovery from their historically dreadful run of form? Would they bother to turn up for a dead-rubber game? Would Sarries do better than their rather down-beat performance at Ospreys? Would the desperate need four a bonus point win motivate them or paralyse thought? Would the weakened back row be good enough, with key individuals not available?
The drive to the park was dreadful, drizzle becoming rain, leading to the sort of vast puddles that can conceal a sink-hole the size of a large bus. About 55 mph seemed the safe speed on the M40, and I was vaguely expecting to see the Audi that overtook me at twice my own speed upside down further up the motorway. Strangely, my late start to the journey was given compensation by the lack of actual hold-ups, and I arrived on time.
Liam Williams and Michael Rhodes could not start. Perhaps Liam’s injury was not ready for last week’s game, and we hear that Michael’s injury is more severe than at first thought, and that we may not see him again this season. Jackson Wray was also off the team list as he is also shrugging off a niggle.
Alex Goode ran out first, to mark his 250th appearance in the Sarries senior shirt. It seems an age since we were seeing a reluctant full-back who wanted to play at fly-half and only accepted the role at the back as a stop-gap whilst he learned his trade. He clearly has learned it well, as his hatful of premiership and European winners’ medals, all as a full-back testifies.
The game itself began in fog. Fireworks that greet the teams’ entry need at least some breath of wind to clear the smoke, but TV schedules dictate that the game start on time, so our first glimpses of play came through the smoke or fog that hung around for the first two or three minutes.
Saints started with some intent, intensity and accuracy. However, the fourth minute produces the game’s first moment, a remarkable contribution to a maul by Maro Itoje. He drives straight through a threatening Saints maul, removes two players, returns to behind the rear feet on his own side and re-joins, to strip the ball. The ensuing scrum is not a thing of beauty, and the net result is that Alex clears, under pressure, and the lively Saints 10, Reinach, pops through, and takes advantage of Alex’s unsteadiness after the poor clearance, to open the scoring, under the posts. 0 -7.
The restart is to be the story of the afternoon. Sarries are quick, organised and physical. Schalk Burger has already mad two carries, and his third, on eight minutes, yields a penalty for holding on. Farrell is to have a happy afternoon. And it begins with three points. 3 – 7. Saints restart now, and the difference is so obvious as to be a clear point of difference for the rest of the afternoon. The Saints put almost no pressure into the follow-up and Marcelo Bosch has ample time to deliver the sort of kick that destroys forwards’ belief in the essential goodness of life. From their own re-start, Saints are defending for their lives in their own red zone. The heavy cavalry is to be dominant from now on, and the dominance starts with waves of short, telling carries, all by forwards, until the defending numbers are overwhelmed, leaving Mako Vunipola the last stab needed to take a try, converted, under the posts. Fourteen minutes gone, 10 – 7.
We all know that Sarries can sometimes be caught by a sucker punch at the re-start, and Saints press hard, very quickly putting the lively centre Nafi Tuitvake in for a converted try. 10 – 14 after only 14 minutes.
Chris Wyles has taken a knock to an ankle, and his day is done. Nathan Earle comes on, earlier than expected. He may have been announced as joining Quins next term, but his contribution today will add much to Sarries’ performance.
Saints have shaded the first quarter, and as the clock turns to 20 minutes gone they are ahead. It cannot be claimed that either side has really hit their stride, but whereas Saints are clearly close to the best they will offer, Sarries are going about warming up the heavy traffic and settling the light cavalry into a good mind-set.
With the first quarter just passed, A brilliant clearance and follow-up sees Nathan Earle cover over 50 metres to harass Ben Foden well within his 22. Foden unloads, forward, and Sarries have a promising scrum. From time to time rugby is a remarkably simple game. Quick heel, very slick passing along the back division, and the Saints run out of defenders. They may have expected something closer to the side of the scrum, because Alex has a fairly simple run in, with support inside and outside. 17 -14.
Within two minutes, Saints lose two line-outs. There will be a couple more, but this is scarcely surprising, given Sarries’ pressure. However, one is simply a poor throw by Hartley, a blemish during what is perhaps his best game so far this season. Perhaps Eddie has told him that even the England captain has to justify selection, or perhaps the Gaffer has said that even the Saints captain has to turn up sometimes. The result is that from line-out offences Saints find that within one minute they have gone from pressing the Sarries line to desperate defence of their own. A break by Owen Farrell, draw the defence, sharp pass to an unmarked Marcelo. 22-14 because Owen misses the extras.
For several minutes a spectator needs a flexible neck. Play moves to and fro with bewildering rapidity. It ends with a set-up by Nathan that gives Wiggy a simple run-in. 29-14, bonus point try. The first essential of the afternoon is completed. Now to cement the win.
Saints must react or go in with what would clearly be a dangerous deficit to claw back. The last minute of real time is a disaster. Tom Stephenson takes a clearance from Nathan, instantly followed by taking Nathan a full sprint. George North will come on for the HIA. As Saints re-organise their back division, Sarries press down into the corner. Flanker Jamie Gibson enters a threatening ruck, so far to the side that he would seem to have entered from behind the Sarries rear feet. Yellow card, Sarries forwards do what they do, and Vincent Koch, having a stormer after last week’s off day at Ospreys, burrows through. 36 – 14, and Saints are looking down the barrel of what would be a third half-century beating from Sarries this season.
As we sucked the oranges, we pondered a couple of things. Would Saints be as woeful for the next 40 as they were for the second 20? Would Sarries take their minds off to worry about other results that they need to go their way?
The first seven or eight minutes of the second period are painful. Foden is sacked and has to hang on to prevent further damage, and Owen’s personal points tally takes him to being the third-highest points scorer in the top European competition. Only moments later another penalty takes today’s team score to 42 – 14. Gibson’s transgression has cost Saints 17 points in ten minutes.
As the game comes to the 50 minute mark, and we think about who will replace whom, Mako drops to one knee. I am thinking of bidding for the contract to supply Sarries with Mako’s contact lenses; such a contract would make me wealthy.
After the pause, scrum on the Saints 22. This is another act of pure simplicity and execution. Fast ball from the scrum, clean hands down the back division, and Sean Maitland has half the width of the pitch to work alone. The man has real speed, and the cover can only grasp at the air turbulence of his run-in. 49 -14.
As 60 minuted approach, Saints No 8 Mitch Eadie receives what might often be a steady pass back, taking it about ten metres behind the line of play. As he gathers, he also gathers Maro, and that is the end of Edie’s contribution. He will hobble on for a minute or two, but in reality, he has received a hospital pass in every sense of the word.
Schalk goes off now, and some bloke I’ve never really heard of comes on. Sione Langi Vailanu is a 22 years old Tongan, who has been learning his trade in Japan, where he recently picked up the one cap for Tonga that gives him entry into UK professional rugby as a KOLPAK player. Other changes for both sides are made now. One is Saints scrum half Alex Mitchell, making his Saints debut in Europe. I think he may be one to watch for the future.
Two scrums on the Saints line. One can only describe them as not being Saints’ best moment. Mako works over, and the try looks good until it is more probable that Dylan Hartley, clearly on for the full 80 minutes, has snuck a hand under the ball.
Another scrum, and this time a better clearance, picked up by Vailanu, who powers over, almost single-handed, for his debut try, giving him playing statistics that he can never hope to improve upon. Played, 1 minute, carries, 1, tries 1. This takes Sarries over the half century against Saints for the third time this season, as we were expecting at half time. 56 – 14
Apart from the usual maelstrom of replacements as the game wound down, with two more penalties, both converted, there is only one real moment on which to comment in the final ten or so minutes. Will Skelton is on, and we knew he was on because his personal gravity field is so powerful that it even draws in light from the stadium array of floodlights. He has been behaving like an escaped bull. His carries have been drawing in every player for miles around, and his breakdown work is worthy of an expert with a JCB. However, his great moment is when he (2.0 metres, 140 Kg) meets Mitchell (1.7 metres, 80 Kg), the latter hoping to make a clean run. It is such a mismatch as for the choke tackle to be funny. Ugo Monye, not a commentator known for the exact phrase, got it right when he said that Skelton could have put Mitchell into his pocket.
So the game ends, 62 – 14. Saints have not scored since the 16th minute. They have suffered their worst ever loss in Europe. If the Gaffer thought that all he had to do was turn up and put his arm round a few bruised egos, his honeymoon belief is truly over. This was a side that simply was technically inadequate, totally without confidence after 20 minutes and was only second best on the day because there are only two teams in a rugby match. For Sarries it was telling that their penalty count for the entire game was three, perhaps one of the lowest ever recorded, a far cry from the numbers in the high teens that we have endured recently.
Owen troubled the scorer 11 times in 12 attempts. There is no doubting that with his game management, leadership, personal playing form and relentless urge to win he is one of world’s leading players. When his kicking boots are almost perfectly aligned, as they were today, he’s simply magnificent.
Mako was man of the match, but that nomination could have gone to Alex, Schalk or Owen and none would have complained.
I liked referee Matthieu Raynal and his team. No referee ever gets everything right, but I appreciate a referee who understands that even when asked to wear a garish pink shirt he is not meant to be the main centre of attention. His seemed to have a good rapport with both teams and allowed a flowing fast pace that both sides and all spectators hoped to see.
Even better was to see that NW had, as his personal guest today, one EG, late of this parish. Dream on!
15. Alex Goode, 14. Sean Maitland, 13. Marcelo Bosch (Lozowski 67'), 12. Brad Barritt, 11. Chris Wyles (Earle 19'), 10. Owen Farrell, 9. Richard Wigglesworth (Spencer 57'), 1. Mako Vunipola (Thompson-Stringer 69'), 2. Jamie George (Tolofua 66'), 3. Vincent Koch (Longbottom 69'), 4. Nick Isiekwe, 5. George Kruis, 6. Maro Itoje (Skelton 66'), 7. Calum Clark, 8. Schalk Burger (Vailanu 60')
Replacements 16. Christopher Tolofua, 17. Hayden Thompson-Stringer, 18. Kieran Longbottom, 19. Will Skelton, 20. Sione Langi Vailanu, 21. Ben Spencer, 22. Alex Lozowski, 23. Nathan Earle.
Tries: M.Vunipola (14'), Goode (21'), Bosch (29'), Wigglesworth (35'), Koch (40'), Maitland (54'), Vailanu (63')
Conversions: Farrell 6/7
Penalties: Farrell 5/5
15. Ben Foden, 14. Ken Pisi, 13. Rob Horne, 12. Tom Stephenson (North 40'-41'& 53', 11. Nafi Tuitavake; 10. Harry Mallinder (Myler 41'), 9. Cobus Reinach (Mitchell 62'), 1. Campese Ma'afu (Van Wyk 62'), 2. Dylan Hartley, 3. Kieran Brookes (Hill 62'), 4. Michael Paterson, 5. Christian Day (Ludlam 54'), 6. David Ribbans, 7. Jamie Gibson, 8. Mitch Eadie (Marshall 66')
Replacements 16. Reece Marshall, 17. Francois van Wyk, 18. Paul Hill, 19.James Craig , 20.Lewis Ludlam, 21.Alex Mitchell, 22 Stephen Myler, 23 George North.
Tries Reinach(6');Tuitavake (18):
Conversions Malinder 2/2
Yellow card Gibson (41')
Man of the match: Mako Vunipola
Attendance: 10,000pqs: qs:
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Thanks go to Innings for the Saints match report!
Edited 2 time(s). Last edit at 2018:02:08:15:20:09 by Darraghgirl.
Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 2018:01:23:14:51:08 by SaintED.
Stuart Barnes is a Cock Womble
I’ve long wondered whether Mako decided on slippery contacts to get some extra breathers
I've just watched back the BT screening. Flats declared that he too occasionally had to take time (with apologies to the ref) to put his contacts back in - and then added that he's never worn them in his life.
Successful hills are here to stay
Everything must be this way
Gentle streets where people play
Welcome to the Soft Parade
Really need to be a few rules laid down re AW otherwise its a pointless competition!
European champions 2016 & 2017
Points win matches: tries win hearts and minds.
I’d play a team in spirit of competition!
No point opposition sending out academy players to get ‘spanked’ as that would be detrimental to their development,hence some guidlines would be good
European champions 2016 & 2017
Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 2018:02:01:18:45:21 by Highbury Saracen.