Rugby Union: Pienaar sharpens rusty Saracens

Saracens 40 London Irish 26
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The Independent Online
IT HAS been a long month without high quality competition among the clubs and the rust was in evidence on both sides.

When London Irish put the occasional attack together, generally through the canny centre Brendan Venter or their irrepressible captain, Conor O'Shea, they certainly looked dangerous.

But careless hands, lapses in concentration and basic errors let them down "We looked as if we had taken handling lessons from the England cricket team," quipped Dick Best, the Exiles' director of rugby. "But we never looked like winning it."

For their part Saracens were little better. But that little made enough of a difference. The north London team were under new leadership, Tony Diprose having been replaced as captain by the player-coach, Francois Pienaar.

Whatever effect the changeover may have had on the England No 8, it certainly did something for the former South African captain.

Pienaar led by example, helping himself to two of his sides' four tries and whipping up enough collective effort to ensure that Saracens did not lose their heads or the match.

Diprose was his usual, ubiquitous self, using his head and hands, often to telling effect. The demotion is not going to encroach upon his high standards, but he did admit: "I was disappointed with the decision, but it's done. I have to concentrate on my game now and play my best for Saracens."

Pienaar insisted the switch of captain was not to be seen as a reflection of Diprose's two and a half year tenure in the job. Things have gone a little awry of late and Pienaar explained: "I just wanted to put things back on track. We are still a long way back from what we need to be."

Pienaar's opening try late in the first half, courtesy of a sly little one-handed reverse pass from scrum-half Brad Free, demonstrated his intent and he popped up with a timely reminder nine minutes after the interval.

But the loss of Richard Hill (dislocated thumb) and stand-off Alain Penaud (injured shoulder) and the later departure of the influential Ryan Constable did not help the Saracen cause. Nor did Irish's kicker, Jarrod Cunningham, who scored 16 points.

But the Exiles paid dearly for their mistakes.

In a match, in the main, of indifferent individual performances, one player emerged with a great deal of credit. Saracens' England Under 21 prop David Flatman scored a try on his first-team debut and performed like a veteran, all the more remarkable given that he is still only 18.

Add to that the flawless kicking of Gavin Johnson - seven kicks out of seven for a 20-point haul - and Irish were never allowed to take charge, although they did well to get within four points before Flatman and Johnson settled the issue.

The big test comes on Saturday when Saracens, whose victory yesterday did not advance them up the Premiership table, travel to Bath.

Saracens: Tries Free, Pienaar 2, Flatman; Conversions Johnson 4; Penalties Johnson 4. London Irish: Tries Boer, Kirke; Conversions Cunningham 2; Penalties Cunningham 4.

Saracens: G Johnson; B Daniel, R Constable (K Sorrell, 64), S Ravenscroft, R Wallace; A Penaud (M Singer, 34), B Free (M Olsen, 72); D Flatman, G Chuter (G Botterman, 54), P Wallace, P Johns, D Grewcock, F Pienaar (capt), T Diprose, R Hill (P Ogilvie, 41).

London Irish: C O'Shea (capt); J Bishop (R Todd, 64), N Burrows, B Venter (M Jones, 80), J Cunningham; S Bachop, K Putt; N Hatley (M Worsley, 75), R Kirke, R Hardwick (K Fullman, 63), R Strudwick, M O'Kelly, J Boer, I Feaunati (R Gallacher, 72), K Dawson.

Referee: G Warren (Bristol).