Rugby Union: Hill leaves Back in the shade

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Saracens 22 Leicester 10

YOU DO not get many of these to the pound, or to the tonne for that matter; not these days, when tries are two a penny and the human traffic of sin-binnings and tactical substitutions makes rugby an exercise for the anorak rather than the aficionado. For 40 enthralling minutes the latest 17,000-plus crowd at Vicarage Road were treated to a tense, tourniquet-tight contest between the best club sides in the country before Saracens disappeared into the wide blue yonder with a second-half display of the highest calibre.

At the heart of it all was Richard Hill, whose decisive points victory over Neil Back should guarantee him an England starting place when the serious business of World Cup qualification gets underway next month. The Londoners' open-side flanker was in magisterial form, his ball carrying as cultured as ever and his tackling both precise and destructive.

With an almost theatrical sense of timing, he underlined his own dominance in the very last act of an illuminating afternoon. Tim Stimpson, worryingly out of kilter with the rest of his back three all game, flung a decidedly chancy pass to Nnamdi Ezulike in his own 22, only to see Hill bury the unfortunate wing with a veritable mother of a tackle. Ezulike hung onto the ball for dear life as the Saracens reinforcements arrived, Brian Campsall rightly penalised him and Alain Penaud applied the finishing touches with a simple penalty.

If Clive Woodward, the England coach, does not find a place for Hill at the first opportunity, he could justly be accused of negligence. If he does not call up Jeremy Thomson, an absolute pearl of a centre, without further ado he might well find himself charged with something more serious still. Insanity, perhaps.

Thomson will play far worse than he did yesterday and snaffle up umpteen man-of-the-match awards. His contribution to the Saracens cause in the first half, when his new club-mates found themselves in an unusual degree of strife, was all-encompassing and if his efforts were less striking after the break, he had already earned his weekly meal-ticket twice over.

First, there was a try-saving cover hit on the remarkably rapid Ezulike. Then, in the next breath, he conjured the deftest of chips with the outside of his left foot as he ran out of space towards the right touch-line, a real David Beckham job if ever there was one. It allowed Hill to pressure Stimpson into a jittery touch-line clearance and when Paul Gustard knocked Tony Diprose out of the road at the ensuing line-out, Gavin Johnson was able to place the penalty and level proceedings at 3-3.

Born in Pietermaritzburg but English-qualified through a mother who hails from Watford - Thomson has found a home at Vicarage Road in more ways than one - the former Springbok tourist looks the most organised inside centre currently available to Woodward and his fellow selectors. Will Greenwood will, of course, mount the sternest of challenges to Thomson's pre-eminence when he regains full fitness.

For all of his efforts, Leicester were much the more positive outfit as the clock ticked down towards half-time and the planet hardly slipped from its axis in shock when Leon Lloyd steamed onto Joel Stransky's double miss-pass from a set scrum in the home 22 and slipped out of Ryan Constable's badly-timed tackle on his way to the line. Rarely in the year or so since they pitched up at Watford had Saracens looked so impotent. Rarely, if ever, have they been forced to work so much over-time for next to nothing.

All that changed in the opening minutes of the second period. They secured early field position deep in Tiger territory - had Troy Coker's attempted upper-cut connected with the jutting jaw of Richard Cockerill, they would surely have conceded the advantage - and Constable promptly capitalised on Campsall's leniency and atoned for his earlier crime by handing off Stransky and claiming the equalising try.

There would be no backward glances. Despite Leicester's instant addition of Graham Rowntree, the Saracens front row gradually took control of the bump and grind and won themselves another penalty to take the lead on 54 minutes. Johnson added another when Martin Corry killed a ruck six minutes later and when Kyran Bracken, surely another stone-cold England certainty, lit the blue touch paper with a thrilling broken-field run ten minutes from time, Penaud slotted the first of his two successful kicks.

Leicester, previously unbeaten at Premiership level, had no answer. They battled away in their haphazard fashion and might have worked Lloyd over for a second try at the death, but in the context of this particular rivalry, the result was quite convincing enough for Saracens' liking. Last season, there was a single point victory to both sides to go with a 10-10 draw. Under the circumstances, a 12-point winning margin is the next thing to a whitewash.

Saracens: Try Constable; Conversion Johnson; Penalties Johnson 3, Penaud 2. Leicester: Try Lloyd; Conversion Stransky; Penalty Stransky.

Saracens: G Johnson (K Sorrell, 62); B Daniel, R Constable, J Thomson, M Singer; A Penaud, K Bracken; R Grau, G Shuter, P Wallace, P Johns, D Grewcock, T Coker (F Pienaar, 66), A Diprose (capt), R Hill.

Leicester: T Stimpson; L Lloyd, S Potter, P Howard (W Grenwood, 76), N Ezulike; J Stransky, A Healey; D Jelley (G Rowntree, 50), R Cockerill (D West, 70), D Garforth, M Johnson (capt), F van Heerden, P Gustard, M Corry, N Back.

Referee: B Campsall (Yorkshire).