Rugby Union: Pienaar unable to spring Saracens

Bath 35 Saracens 33
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Francois Pienaar claimed afterwards that he has a way to go before he can regard himself as integrated into the Saracens set-up, but on this showing he is not that far away. After an initial spell when he looked a little off the pace the former captain of South Africa, who led the Springboks to their World Cup victory in 1995, suddenly caught up with events.

His class began to show through, particularly towards the end, when Bath, uncharacteristically flagged and allowed Saracens to come back at them. If stand-off Michael Lynagh, the world-record Test points scorer with 911 for Australia, had landed a couple more kicks then they would have been in the clear.

As it was, with Pienaar playing open side in the absence of the injured Richard Hill, they ran the defending league champions close. Afterwards Pienaar said: "It will take me three to four games to settle into the team pattern. There were moments out there under pressure when I forgot the names of my team-mates. And it is 16 weeks since I last played competitive rugby, so I am not yet match fit."

He is world class, though. His strength in the tackle and ability to make the ball available was apparent throughout an absorbing and ultimately thrilling contest. That Saracens matched Bath try for try was testimony to the work put in by their talented back row, led by their captain, Tony Diprose.

John Hall, Bath's director of rugby, admitted he was relieved to get this tie out of the way. "It was a very important match for us," said Hall, whose side, having lost three games already this season, cannot afford any more defeats if they are to be in contention at the climax of the campaign.

Overall, it was an encouraging Bath performance. The forwards, and front five in particular, were exemplary. The Argentinian lock, German Llanes, who is in the West Country for the next week to discuss a possible move to the club, must have been impressed with what he saw. The driving mauls were a lesson in textbook rugby and were a class above anything that Saracens could produce, while the stand-off, Rich Butland, could well keep out the injured Mike Catt for a little longer after his superb showing.

Every option the South African-born Butland took was the right one and he has a kick like a shire horse, which had his gleeful forwards galloping upfield time and again. The back rows virtually cancelled each other out. If Bath had the edge it was because the lock Nigel Redman, in addition to some sterling work at the line-out, mixed it in the loose and revealed some superlative handling skills.

But so did Pienaar. His timing of a pass is excellent, his reading of defensive lines near flawless. Few will make a bigger impact as the year wears on. And Saracens had another gem in the left wing, Courtney Smith. He has won seven caps for Canada and looks to have been hewn out of jet, so hard is he and so polished a player. He scored one magnificent try when the England wing Jon Sleightholme missed a tackle on him and could have scored another but for some desperate defence from the home side.

While Bath had been written off earlier this season, that was clearly a touch premature, but they still have to win every remaining game while waiting for others to fall by the wayside. Saracens, too, could be challenging for a place in Europe next season. All it needs is for Pienaar to click with the rest of his team-mates and they could pull off a few surprises themselves.

Bath: Tries Mendez, Webster; Penalty try Guscott; Conversions Callard 3; Penalties Callard 3. Saracens: Tries Smith, Diprose, Wallace, Clark; Conversions Lynagh 2; Penalties Lynagh 3

Bath: J Callard; J Sleightholme, P de Glanville (capt), J Guscott, J Robinson; R Butland, I Sanders; D Hilton (K Yates, 79), F Mendez, V Ubogu, M Haag, N Redman, N Thomas, R Webster, S Ojomoh.

Saracens: M Evans; R Wallace, P Sella, S Ravenscroft, C Smith; M Lynagh, K Bracken; T Daly, G Botterman, A Olver, C Yandell, T Copsey, G Clark, F Pienaar, T Diprose (capt).

Referee: B Campsall (Halifax)