Saracens. . .17
IT MAY be the year of the Rooster in Chinatown but whatever happened to that old British favourite, the underdog? The answer, if Saracens are an example of the breed, is that they have had their noses rubbed into the paddy field.
'Don't forget to place your bets ladies and gentlemen,' said the man in the stand with the microphone, sounding like a bookie's runner. 'There are some attractive prices on offer.' It makes a change from announcing team changes. Ladbrokes have set up shop overlooking a touchline at Sudbury and they made their hosts odds-on to knock Saracens out of the fourth round of the Pilkington Cup.
Neither of these clubs derive much benefit from being stuck in suburban outposts off London's North Circular but Wasps have the greater pulling power, the greater everything. One thing they did not have on Saturday was humility. Not so much grace in victory as a breathtaking arrogance. Consider the form. Wasps are top of the First Division with an unbeaten record. Saracens have won only one league match and a fortnight ago were beaten 13-9 at home by Wasps. Conditions were about the same for both encounters, which is to say dreadful.
'We think we are about 20 to 30 points better than them,' Rob Smith, the Wasps coach, said. 'We believe that. Conditions were a big leveller. They never threatened our line but somehow scored two tries. It's very difficult to play the sort of rugby we want to play in conditions like that. We should have won the game in the first half.'
Wasps were the better side but were given an almighty fright by the cussedness of Saracens. Wasps won the first half, downwind, 15-3 but lost the second 14-3. When Saracens scored two tries in the space of seven minutes early in the second half, Wasps were facing pest control. For all their possession, especially from the line-out, Wasps were frustrated by a magnificent defence and a back row blitz on Adrian Thompson.
Ultimately the difference was that Alan Buzza, one of the better full-backs in England, was rock solid when Saracens had the wind at their backs and his catching and positional play was crucial. In the first half, Saracens often made the mistake of going for distance with their kicks instead of safety and the wind ensured they acheived neither. When Ben Rudling missed touch Buzza switched to Steve Pilgrim, whose kick over the line appeared too strong. The race was between Chris Oti and Gregg Botterman and the England wing just won it as the ball's progress over the try line was halted in a bog.
There was nothing fortunate about Wasps' second try. A shortened line-out enabled Francis Emeruwa to burst with impressive acceleration through the midfield and Pilgrim (Wasps should have gone for Mecca instead of Ladbrokes) scored at the posts. Wasps might have built on their lead, but instead of kicking for goal they foolishly tried to smash through with their forwards. Rudling, who kicked one penalty, was inches from landing another.
Saracens, 15-3 down at half-time, led 17-15 after 57 minutes, courtesy of tries by Botterman and Darren O'Leary. Oti, favoured by the conditions for his try, was undone by the mud when he slipped while turning for Rudling's skilful take and chip and O'Leary showed why he is so highly regarded. He took the ball on the bounce and dived into Buzza's breakneck tackle to touch the ball down three inches inside the corner flag. Brilliant.
Pilgrim's goalkick a minute later proved the winning score as Wasps conceded only two penalties in the second half. O'Leary, though, came close to converting another Rudling chip into a spectacular try. Last season, Saracens won a host of matches by one score and this season they are losing them by a similar margin. They are now left with a dogfight to avoid relegation. 'We are a very proud club,' John Davies, the coach, said. 'We feel deep down that we're a First Division side and we will play like men possessed to stay up.' England are not interested in the Second Division and should Saracens fail it means that someone like O'Leary may be poached.
Rob Smith, meanwhile, was talking about a league and Cup double, Courage in a Pilkington glass. He has already backed Wasps at 28-1 to win the former and Rob Andrew will soon be eligible. 'We get stronger as the season goes on,' Smith said, 'and as we've not done badly so far, look out.' He has a short memory. Wasps disintegrated in the second half of last season, morale and discipline disappeared out of the window and Smith resigned.
Wasps: Tries Oti, Pilgrim; Conversion Pilgrim; Penalties Pilgrim 2. Saracens: Tries Botterman, O'Leary; Conversions Rudling 2; Penalty Rudling.
Wasps: A Buzza; S Pilgrim, F Clough, D Hopley, C Oti; A Thompson, S Bates; G Holmes, K Dunn, J Probyn, R Kinsey, D Ryan (capt), F Emeruwa, M Greenwood, M White.
Saracens: A Tunningley; D O'Leary, J Buckton, D Dooley, S Reed; B Rudling, B Davies (capt); R Andrews, G Botterman, S Wilson, M Langley, L Adamson, C Tarbuck, B Crawley, J Cassell.
Referee: F Howard (St Helens) .
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