Rugby Union: A day for crowds and the first Joel

Tim Glover watches the Saracens relinquish their record to the tenacious Tigers; Vicarage Road comes alive as fists fly and the fans flock to the only game in town on Boxing Day
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Perhaps it was a watershed for the Allied Dunbar Premiership. In the last minute of normal time Joel Stransky's drop goal ended Saracens' unbeaten record, had a sobering effect on their Christmas and put bemused bums on previously unoccupied seats.

As Francois Pienaar, the Saracens player-coach, walked into the members' bar to join a gathering of his family, most of whom had travelled from South Africa, Nigel Wray observed: "He's not a man who likes losing." Nor, of course, is Wray, the property tycoon who is losing heaps by underwriting Saracens.

On the day, Boxing Day, Stransky, who is also South African, did rather better than his opposite number, the Australian Michael Lynagh, and Leicester went back up the M1 with a 22-21 victory.

"Sport's funny isn't it?" Wray mused. "If you're going to choose a business to invest in, you wouldn't choose sport. You can't control it for a start. I can't control it. Just one point means the difference between 15 smiling faces and 15 unhappy faces. You have to accept defeat even though you hate it."

There was, however, another, potentially more significant, change in affairs. The scoreline wasn't the only figure swimming around in Wray's head. The crowd of 14,291 travelled to Vicarage Road. Not so much a watershed, more a sea change. Club chairmen up and down the country might be taking a step back from the window ledge.

"It's beginning to work," Wray said. "If we stay at the top, or close to it, I can see us getting 20,000 people. It's unbelievable when you think that Saracens had a crowd of about 1,000 two years ago."

Nevertheless, he still sees mergers between leading clubs - Bath and Bristol for example - as inevitable.

Back to the present, and the Vicarage Road tea party was the best attendance for an English club game outside Leicester. They may never have heard of Sir Stanley Rous but they filled the stand bearing his name. The caterers ran out of food and the club shop nearly ran out of pounds 50 Saracens bomber jackets. The previous best had been 11,400 for Saracens' last home match when they took Bath to the cleaners. Nobody puts 50 points on Bath.

The kick-off for that match was delayed by five minutes to accommodate latecomers. The start on Friday afternoon was put back 15 minutes because of motorway congestion. If they get 20,000 they could be kicking off at midnight. In the old days, when Saracens played at Southgate rather than the stadium of Watford FC, they would delay the start to facilitate the arrival of the hard core, namely north London's answer to Sid and Doris Bonkers.

The match was originally scheduled for yesterday, but with both clubs in action again on Tuesday, the switch made sense, not least commercially. It was the only Premiership game to be found. In any case, when Watford are at home, as they are today, Saracens are not allowed to play the day before. As it is, the groundsman is working overtime. Pity the poor old sod.

Hammering a Bath side who had one eye on the European Cup semi-final, was one thing. The Tigers were not for stuffing. They boasted an all- international pack, mainly English, but with two extremely astute acquisitions in the Irishman Eric Miller and the South African Fritz van Heerden. "Our eight put a lot of pressure on their eight," Bob Dwyer, Leicester's Australian coach, said. "We wanted to take them on up front."

Within three minutes, Danny Grewcock, the Saracens lock, was sporting a bandage on his head. That was after Pienaar had thrown a punch at the Leicester full-back, Andrew Leeds. Grewcock and Martin Johnson, the Tigers' captain and no stranger to the bare-knuckle stuff, received yellow cards from Ed Morrison while Ryan Constable and Austin Healey, a police car chase by any other name, were slugging it out behind the try line. The rival props Paul Wallace and Graham Rowntree were also on the referee's card list. It was all good dirty fun although PC Plod would have been animated. The match-ball sponsors were Enid Blyton, publishers of children's books. "There were plenty of people racing in to belt others on the back of the head," Dwyer observed. Pienaar concurred. "It was very fiery," the Springbok said. And the Grewcock-Johnson side-show? "One is in the England side and the other wants to be there," Pienaar explained. Johnson is certainly a forbidding figure. Stick a bolt on the side of his head at the set for a Frankenstein movie and it would save the make-up department time and money.

It wasn't pretty although an Australian coach of Dwyer's acquaintance thought the match bore the hallmarks of the southern hemisphere's celebrated Super 12 series. "The standard of play was there. The intensity was there and the crowd was there," Dwyer said. Certainly, the latter two were there.

As for Wray, he thought it a monstrous result. "When we got the ball, we scored two beautiful tries. Leicester just don't play rugby."

But the Tigers had blood on their teeth and this was a big kill. While Leicester would quite happily put Lynagh to ground, even after he had got rid of the ball, Saracens spared Stransky similar treatment. And time and again from kick-offs by the Tigers that were spot-on (usually by the Fijian Waisale Serevi who has perfected the art from sevens play), Leicester regained possession.

To the uninitiated it must have seemed that the referee Mr Morrison was a bit of a spoilsport. It came as no surprise to a venerable Saracens official who, before the game, stated unequivocally that there was no way Leicester could lose. It was based on the observation that Mr Morrison and his wife had been asked to cough up 50p for a cup of tea. Leicester are more streetwise. At Welford Road they would have presented the referee with a Teasmade and wished him a Happy Christmas.