Rugby Union: Pienaar puts real purpose into Saracens

Saracens 52 Pontypridd 35
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The Independent Online
SARACENS HAVE always been a big-hearted, generous kind of club, but their sense of goodwill was looking seriously over-developed after 50 minutes or so of yesterday's do-or-die Heineken Cup game with Pontypridd. Having kissed goodbye to winning positions against Colomiers and Munster in their previous pool matches, they appeared to have set their hearts on giving Pontypridd a similar leg up by frittering away leads of 15-0 and 18-3. At times, it was difficult to work out whether they had been coached by Francois Pienaar or Mother Teresa.

Extraordinarily, a high-octane try from Sonny Parker, the Pontypridd centre, eight minutes into the second half gave the visitors a four-point lead they could scarcely have expected to register while Saracens were running riot in the opening quarter. Pienaar, who had accused his side of playing like "primary schoolkids" during the defeat by Munster, looked even less amused on this occasion. "We were making stupid mistakes," he said afterwards. "I'm sure it was very exciting for the crowd, but it did nothing whatsoever for my health."

So Pienaar called the chaps together for one of his "quiet chats", the content of which proved beyond any doubt that the former Springbok captain can swear just as well in English as in Afrikaans. Within 19 explosive minutes, Saracens had re-established at least some of their European credentials by putting 24 points past the Welshmen, who could muster only a single Lee Jarvis penalty in reply. At 45-28, the job was nicely done and dusted, to the extent that a late outburst of tit-for-tat tries, featuring Gareth Wyatt and Pienaar himself, was wholly irrelevant.

Ponty could have no real complaints, even though there was an overpowering whiff of a forward pass in the build-up to Ben Johnston's game-turning try on 53 minutes. Saracens had much the better of the forward exchanges, where Scott Murray shone like a dark-haired Scottish beacon both in the line-out and in the loose. They also looked a shade sharper in midfield, especially after Mark Mapletoft had moved from full-back to stand-off to fill in for the injured Thierry Lacroix. His understanding with Kevin Sorrell, outstanding at inside centre, was highly productive throughout the second half.

Mapletoft might have found himself in the pivot position a little earlier had Bertie Craig, the Scottish touch-judge at the centre of the recent gouging scandal surrounding the Colomiers prop Richard Nones, taken exception to Lacroix's staggering behaviour three minutes before the break. The Frenchman had a falling-out of the handbag-swinging variety with Jarvis, his opposite number, and immediately complained to Craig, who quite reasonably declined to take action. Lacroix then barged the official, an action that might well have had serious repercussions had not Nalu Tau, the Tongan international prop, been in the process of scoring a try in the far corner. As it was, Craig settled for a gentle word in his adversary's ear as Jarvis lined up his conversion.

Had Saracens capitalised on a murderously efficient start, the game would not have become as contentious as it did. Richard Hill claimed the opening score from a rolling maul after 90 seconds, while Pienaar popped up and over from a close-range scrum with only nine minutes on the clock. Lacroix then added a penalty before Jarvis replied in kind to kick-start the Ponty effort. The Welshmen maintained that effort until Johnston nudged Sarries back in front, and subsequent back-row tries from Tony Diprose and the predatory Hill on 56 and 67 minutes were enough to decide the issue.

The two sides will meet again at Sardis Road on Friday night when the losers will certainly be Heineken Cup history. "Depending on the conditions, we'll probably have to play a tighter game," said Pienaar. Whatever the weather, the Londoners will have to tighten up mentally.

Saracens: Tries Hill 2, Pienaar 2, Johnson, Diprose; Conversions Mapletoft 4, Lacroix; Penalties Lacroix 3, Mapletoft. Pontypridd: Tries G Lewis, Tau, Parker, Wyatt; Conversions Jarvis 3; Penalties Jarvis 3.

Saracens: M Mapletoft; R Constable, J Thomson, K Sorrell, R Thirlby (B Johnston, 48); T Lacroix (D O'Mahony, h-t), N Walshe; D Flatman, G Chuter, J White (P Wallace, 71), S Murray, D Grewcock, R Hill, F Pienaar (capt), A Diprose.

Pontypridd: B Davey; G Wyatt, S Parker, J Lewis, L Woodard (J Colderley, 58); L Jarvis, P John (capt; M Taylor, 70); N Tau (C Loader 61), A Lamerton, S Cronk, W James (R Sidoli, 54), I Gough, M Lloyd (R Field, 59), R Field (D McIntosh, 48), G Lewis.

Referee: C Muir (Scotland).