By TheSaracens.com
April 30 2020

  Behind the Bench reminds us of the 2016 European Champions Cup Semi-Final at the Mad Stad against Wasps: Made It To Lyon Saracens 24-17 Wasps European Champions Cup Semi Final Madejski Stadium, Reading Saturday 23 April A fierce defensive effort proved the foundation for this narrow victory against Wasps as the European dream remains alive in three weeks time. If the battle seemed to be lost in the stands in a deceptively chilly Madejski Stadium as there was a sense of a Wasps homecoming, it certainly wasn't on the pitch. Reminiscent of the match in Coventry at the end of 2015, hard-tackling Saracens defence meant that the much heralded Wasps running game only threatened fleetingly, with just a trio of line breaks, despite them enjoying the majority of territory and possession. Crucially, Saracens gained an edge at both the lineout and the breakdown, earning vital steals and penalties. For those who like statistics, no less than ten Sarries players made it into double figures in the tackle count, as Mako Vunipola led the way with 19, and stayed on the whole game. 

Teams were much as expected, and for the first time ever I'd predicted the starting Saracens line up correctly. That meant Alex Goode at full back, with Chris Ashton and Chris Wyles occupying the wings, and a centre partnership of Duncan Taylor and Brad Barritt, whilst Owen Farrell and Richard Wigglesworth teamed up in the half backs. Forwards-wise, the front row contained Mako Vunipola, Schalk Brits and Petrus du Plessis, Maro Itoje and George Kruis were back together in the second row, and a shuffled back row featured Michael Rhodes, Will Fraser and Billy Vunipola. Wasps made a number of changes from the thumping win at Worcester last week. Charles Piatau was at full back, with a wing duo of Christian Wade and Frank Halai, whilst Elliot Daly and Siale Piatau occupied the centres. Jimmy Gopperth was at fly half and Dan Robson continued at scrum half. Into the pack, and Matt Mullen continued at loosehead, whilst Carlo Festuccia was preferred at hooker and due to the injury of Jake Cooper-Woolley, Lorenzo Cittadini was selected at tighthead. Joe Launchbury and Bradley Davies were at lock, whilst the back row comprised of captain James Haskell, George Smith and Nathan Hughes.

The first half got off to what would prove to be a misleading start, given how play would unfold. In what was their only visit to Saracens' 22 in the opening half, Wasps took a first minute lead as the ball was released by Charles Piatau to Wade on his right who ran from deep to slip the ball to the supporting Robson on his left. The scrum half appeared to have lost momentum as he rounded the covering defence, but was still able to go in near the right hand corner as Gopperth converted. Saracens looked to counter within moments, as a poor Wasps kick gave them a 40 metre lineout but a forward Brits pass saw the move break down. Saracens were enjoying the majority of territory as Itoje and Billy Vunipola connected from a lineout but a wayward kick blunted the move. Eleven minutes in, an expansive move saw Ashton, Goode and Wyles link up to spread play from right to left from well inside their own half and forced a penalty as Wasps came in from the side and from the lineout, won another, but Farrell was surprisingly wide. Sarries were nearly level on 16 minutes when pressing defence forced a misplaced pass which was picked up by Kruis and they patiently went through the phases. A clever kick through by Farrell was missed by both Ashton and Halai and touched down by Taylor following in: however the try was ruled out due to the TMO spotting a shoulder charge by Ashton on Halai.

If the attack wasn't consistently clicking, Saracens were doing well in defence although Farrell made a promising run through the centre only for a knock on to halt the move, and a high tackle by Daly and Goode to be deemed fair. Wasps continued to be penned back and forced to kick more than they would like but something of a stalemate emerged as Saracens failed to make the most of some incisive counter attacks. Although the tight calls had not gone in Sarries' favour, and they should have been narrowly ahead on the balance of play, their discipline was excellent granting Wasps very few opportunities to gain territory through penalties or line breaks. Customary quick thinking provided Saracens with their first try as Gopperth's attempted kick was smartly charged down and gathered by Rhodes to advance over the line, but Farrell was off target with the straightforward conversion and it was 7-5 to Wasps on the 28 minute mark. Some late pressure after consecutive penalties eventually yielded some reward, as Wasps appeared to have won the turnover but were penalised for offside, and it was third time lucky to put Sarries one point ahead at the break.

As Wasps tried to get back in front, they were penalised for holding on twice in the opening five minutes of the second half, and Farrell got both penalties from the halfway line to set up a 14-7 lead and some breathing space. On 48 minutes, the Coventry side had pulled themselves back into contention as a dangerous tackle by Farrell saw him yellow carded and Robson departing after lengthy treatment to make it 14-10. Saracens might have gone further in front eight minutes later when a sharp lineout move had Brits scuttling along the left wing and linking up with Itoje with a fine pass but as the move continued through Billy Vunipola, a knock on ended the attack. Wasps sounded a warning that the deficit was only four points when he evaded three tacklers on the right to take play into the 22 but they were stopped by a handling error, only for a penalty to bring them a quick return into Saracens territory. However, a vital lineout steal was made just when the Coventry side appeared to be building some belated momentum. Another of their moves broke down as Ashton snapped onto a loose pass and Wasps were caught offside from Wigglesworth's box kick, as Farrell returned from the sin bin just in time but dragged his attempt wide

Going into the last 15 minutes, a late hit on Goode went unpunished but Saracens forced a knock on from the lineout and then a penalty as they looked to set up a move which would seal the game. It began well with a powerful Mako Vunipola run but a knock on prevented a score as Taylor looked to pounce in the right corner. Although they were missing chances to settle the game, the two lineout steals from earlier on were looking ever more significant as the seconds ticked on. ( I presume they did - I couldn't see a clock anywhere). From a Saracens perspective, they were playing the game in the right areas, and after lengthy TMO deliberations which saw replacement prop Simon McIntyre yellow carded for aiming a kick at Itoje in a ruck, Farrell edged them further ahead to 17-10.

However, Wasps finally found their attacking rhythm in the closing minutes after Wade made a dangerous break along the left but Sarries won a vital breakdown penalty. The kick set up an ominous rolling maul and with Wasps illegally attempting to bring it down, a penalty try was awarded and Farrell made it 24-10 with eight minutes left. Given the extended stoppages, play trickled past 1700, and there was still time for Wasps to claim a second try, as Saracens were pinged for crossing from the kick off, and, after several phases, the ball was played to Ashley Johnson to crash over, and, after Gopperth had converted, there was still time for them to chase an unlikely draw. A late penalty gave them the opportunity, but after a series of crashing drives, Saracens were able to clear into touch and start making plans for Lyon.

For me it's off to Nottingham tomorrow as an avowed neutral (researching the match preview for Lyon....) and then on Monday, Tag Rugby .... at Wasps (!)

Line Ups:


15 Alex Goode ; 14 Chris Ashton; 13 Duncan Taylor; 11 Chris Wyles; 10 Owen Farrell; 9 Richard Wigglesworth (Neil de Kock 76); 1 Mako Vunipola; 2 Schalk Brits (Jared Saunders 74); 3 Petrus du Plessis (Titi Lamositele 76); ; 4 Maro Itoje; 5 George Kruis; 6 Michael Rhodes (Jackson Wray 62); 7 Will Fraser; 8 Billy Vunipola

Replacements not used: 17 Richard Barrington; 19 Jim Hamilton; 22 Charlie Hodgson; 23 Marcelo Bosch


15 Charles Piatau; 14 Christian Wade; 13 Elliot Daly; 12 Siale Piatau; 11 Frank Halai; 10 Jimmy Gopperth; 9 Dan Robson (Joe Simpson 50); 1 Matt Mullan (Simon McIntyre 60); 2 Carlo Festuccia (Ashley Johnson 69); 3 Lorenzo Cittadini (Phil Swainston 65); 4 Joe Launchbury; 5 Bradley Davies; 6 James Haskell (Thomas Young 60); 7 George Smith; 8 Nathan Hughes (Sam Jones 69)

Replacements not used: 22 Ruaridh Jackson; 23 Rob Miller

Attendance: 16820

Referee R Poite

pqs: qs:
Posted by: TheSaracens.com (IP Logged)
Date: 30/04/2020 20:50

Also nice to remember Behindthebench - one of our former scribes who sadly moved away

Edited 2 time(s). Last edit at 2020:05:22:19:19:33 by Darraghgirl.

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