Rugby Union: Commentary - Hard and fast rule for Sarries

Bristol 20 Saracens 37
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The Independent Online
NEVER mind the ball, get on with the game. If Newcastle pride themselves on their reputation as the Manassa Maulers of the Allied Dunbar Premiership as they continue to apply their no-nonsense methods of physical coercion with a ruthlessness that would have left Jack Dempsey agog with admiration, their rival title contenders from Saracens are following the Muhammad Ali path to fame and fortune. To recoin a phrase, they float like butterflies and punch like steam hammers.

To stretch the boxing analogy a touch further, the third side in the Premiership equation, Bath, have more than a dash of the Mike Tysons about them. That, though, is another story, best told by Mr Simon Fenn of London Scottish. The point here is that when Newcastle and Saracens finally go eyeball to eyeball and toe to toe at Kingston Park next month, the solids may well collide with the ventilation system with spectacular effect. Get your ringside tickets here.

Saracens are not a dirty side, as their director of rugby, Mark Evans, was at pains to point out at Bristol on Saturday. However, their discipline is very definitely on the dodgy side of fragile. But for the fact that Chris Rees chose to referee a heated 12-rounder at the Memorial Ground with Quaker-like restraint, Roberto Grau, Danny Grewcock and Richard Wallace might all have been sent off for pugilistic assaults on a variety of Bristol forwards.

Grau gave Kris Fullman "The Full Monty" on the floor early on, only to be outdone by some startling combination work from the athletic Grewcock, a fresh-faced 6ft 6ins martial arts specialist whose inside leg measurement is approximately 100 times longer than his fuse. But it was Wallace, a left wing for heaven's sake, who delivered the big one, the "Time gentlemen please, that's all for tonight" punch.

Chad Eagle, an 18st lump of a lock from New Zealand, flicked a half-hearted kick at Kyran Bracken as the England scrum-half decked him with a 56th- minute tackle and was still on the floor when Wallace applied a right- hander to the back of his head. "I didn't see it, but I sure felt it," said Eagle, who was flying back to Auckland yesterday to attend his brother's wedding. Had Wallace hit him any harder, he would have saved his victim the air fare.

"It wasn't very clever," admitted the cherubic Irish wing as he contemplated a momentary aberration that stole the thunder from a fine hat-trick of tries. "The referee spoke very sternly to me and I thought I might go, but I suppose I was saved by the fact that I did it in retaliation. I regretted it immediately - and not just because of the pain in my hand, either." A Lion in All Black country in 1993, Wallace has soaked up more than his fair share of punishment from Kiwi types over the years. "I suppose I owe them, but I didn't know yer man was a New Zealander," he smiled. Just at the moment, neither does Eagle.

For all the rugger-bugger bonhomie afterwards - "My, that Wallace has the full range of talents," grinned Alan Davies, a none-too-upset Bristol coach - the weekend excesses should concentrate a few Saracen minds. "We'll talk through what happened and sort it," said Evans. "We're fully aware that indiscipline could cost us. Had Danny or Richard been sent off, our Premiership prospects would have been hampered.

"But hell, we're hardly a problem team. We don't talk back to the referee, we don't go in for verbals and the only over-physical game we've been involved in this season was the Boxing Day match with Leicester, when both sides lost it for a while. If I genuinely felt we were a dirty side, I'd be worried about it. But no one has ever accused us of being anything other than a hard, robust team with a desire to play fast, expansive rugby."

No one could deny the fast and expansive nature of Sarries' performance in the opening quarter on Saturday. Wallace, hungry for work and gloriously direct, had David Tiueti, his Tongan opponent, in such unmitigated strife that he scored two tries within three minutes of the kick-off. Further first-half strikes from Philippe Sella and Bracken put the game way beyond Bristol's reach and perhaps inevitably, the second half meandered along via the odd dust-up until Wallace capitalised on Michael Lynagh's trademark floated pass on the final whistle.

As Davies was happy to assert, Saracens now possess an enviable balance. They have everything they require in the front row, their line-out works beautifully despite George Chuter's occasional overthrows and with Bracken and Lynagh in tandem, they are scarcely short of ideas outside. Above all, they have a back row to die for. Richard Hill, the England flanker, simply oozed class, creating tries almost at will with forceful runs in midfield and stopping attacks with a series of shuddering tackles.

And Bristol? Seldom has a rugby ground been more appropriately named. They are dead meat, sadly, and even if the imminent Premiership re-organisation saves them from relegation, they will struggle again next season. Their brightest talents, Josh Lewsey and Michael Worsley, are being head-hunted by richer, more glamorous clubs and when the bright young things start jumping ship, the sea bed is never far away.

They are still trying, though. Al Charron, the Canadian Test flanker and one of the refugees attempting to escape the fall-out from the financial collapse at Moseley, was conspicuous by his presence in the Memorial Ground stand and if, as expected, he agrees terms tomorrow, he will add some much-needed ballast to the Bristol back row.

However, Bristol's notoriously farcical track record on player recruitment suggests it will be a minor miracle if the Charron deal goes through without a hiccup or two. The Canadian is a ringer for Alan Rickman and the dwindling band of pessimists inhabiting the Memorial Ground terraces would not put it past their management board to have signed the actor by mistake. Happy days.

Bristol: Tries Larkin, Lewsey; Conversions Burke 2; Penalties Burke 2. Saracens: Tries R Wallace 3, Sella, Bracken; Conversions Lynagh 3; Penalties Lynagh 2.

Bristol: J Lewsey; D Tiueti, A Larkin, K Maggs (S Martin, 23), P Hull; P Burke, R Jones (capt, G Baber, 71); M Morgan (A Collins, 48), F Landreau, K Fullman, C Eagle (P Adams, 73), T Devergie, D Corkery (S Pearce, 55), E Rollitt, C Short.

Saracens: M Singer; R Constable, P Sella, S Ravenscroft, R Wallace; M Lynagh, K Bracken; R Grau, G Chuter (B Reidy, 81), P Wallace, P Johns, D Grewcock, F Pienaar, A Diprose (capt), R Hill.

Referee: C Rees (London).