Rugby Union: Saracens' bankrupt stock

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The Independent Online
Ouch, very nasty; smack, bang in the pocket region, where the pain always brings tears to the eyes. Saracens have grown accustomed to the trials and tribulations of Kingsholm down the years, regularly retreating up the M4 with noses out of joint, tails pointing due south and egos fractured. This time, though, they may well have to overcome some particularly unpleasant side-effects into the bargain.

Bumps, bangs and wounded pride have always been prominent among rugby's long list of occupational hazards, but professionalism dictates that boring old flesh and blood comes a poor second to pounds, shillings and pence. The last thing on earth Sarries needed at this point in their expensive development was a sharp kick in the bank account, but their inexplicable and inexcusable 9-6 defeat by an unusually flaccid Gloucester side on Saturday leaves them counting the cost in more ways than one.

The nouveaux riches of Enfield have spent the past seven months or so chasing a single objective: namely, a seat on next season's Heineken Cup gravy train, awash as it will be with Rupert Murdoch's money. On this showing, they have about as much chance of making Europe as Margaret Beckett has of becoming the sixth Spice Girl.

"This," admitted Mark Evans, the admirably candid Saracens coach, "is a big blow." He was not overstating the case. Victory would have propelled the re-shaped, remodelled Londoners over the heads of Harlequins and Sale and into the top four of the Courage League - precisely where they need to finish if they want to spend the summer perfecting their Proust and brushing up on their Bertolucci - but as things now stand, the window of opportunity has disappeared behind a curtain of mediocrity.

Evans' exasperation at his side's continued failure to win an important fixture on the road - "What is it about other people's pitches? If someone could find a way of giving sides the confidence to play away as they do at home, he'd be worth a fortune" - was understandable. With Gloucester still mourning the ill-starred Pilkington Cup semi-final with Leicester that took place seven days previously, the Cherry and Whites were ripe for the picking.

When Sarries last travelled to Kingsholm back in May for a relegation dogfight, they allowed a snarling Gloucester pack to scare them witless and ended the day resembling a half-chewed portion of Pedigree Chum. But that was last season. Since then, they have introduced some muscle of their own and on this occasion, with the likes of Paul Wallace and Paddy Johns fully prepared to stand up and be counted, the visiting eight controlled both possession and territory for an hour or more.

Yet for all the guile of Tony Diprose, the tenacity of Kyran Bracken and the sheer brilliance of Richard Hill, whose potent display on the open-side flank enlivened an eminently forgettable encounter, Sarries fired nothing but blanks. Both Andy Lee and Andy Tunningley missed their kicks - five none-too-testing penalties went west - and that benevolence allowed Mark Mapletoft to snatch the points with a brace of late drop goals that were virtually a mirror image of the pair with which Joel Stransky burgled the cup spoils for Leicester.

Disturbingly for an outfit harbouring long-term aspirations as well as short-term ambitions, the fortunes of the Saracens whole seem inextricably linked to those of its most exposed parts. Michael Lynagh, Philippe Sella and Francois Pienaar are at the very core of Londoners' attempt to gatecrash the private party that has long been in full swing at the top end of the English game but for all their know-how and commercial clout, those players are ageing fast.

Sarries tend to look distinctly ordinary without them and on Saturday, we saw only 47 minutes of Sella, 28 of Pienaar and nothing at all of Lynagh, whose badly bruised hip failed to ease in time for the game. Pienaar had a particularly rotten time of it, starting on the bench as rugby's equivalent of the third spear-carrier and then establishing a new role for himself as a comic villain by getting a yellow card within six minutes of entering the fray. Right in front of the gloriously vindictive Shed, too. Life can be a bitch, even if you are on Nelson Mandela's Christmas card list.

As the last chorus of "What a waste of money" died away on the stiff Kingsholm breeze, Gloucester's bargain basement collection of wannabes and never-wozzers celebrated a ninth league win in 11 outings: a run that should guarantee them mid-table respectability at the very least. It remains the devil's own job to beat England's great traditionalists on home turf - Leicester will not relish their return visit to the bearpit tomorrow night - and although it may be a little too late to plant a foot of their own in Europe, they can still make a serious nuisance of themselves.

From Phil Greening at hooker to Chris Catling at full-back, they have an effective spine, willing and able to make snap tactical decisions on the hoof; indeed, despite the surfeit of possession enjoyed by their opponents, Gloucester still managed to rustle up the only clear-cut try-scoring chances of the afternoon. Both fell to Mike Peters, a fast but rather artless wing who, with a little more nous, might have eluded the last-ditch tackles with which Hill and Bracken caught him in either right-hand corner.

Still, 9-6 was perfectly adequate, thank you very much. For David Sims, bleary-eyed but transparently happy after attending the birth of his first child less than an hour before kick-off and then haring across town to take his place on the pitch, it was the day to end them all. "You can't ask for much more than that, can you?" he said. Sarries may have the big- money signings, but only one man felt like a millionaire.

Gloucester: Penalty Mapletoft; Drop goals Mapletoft 2. Saracens: Penalties Tunningley, Lee.

Gloucester: C Catling (A Lumsden, 65); M Peters, C Emmerson, M Roberts, M Lloyd; M Mapletoft, S Benton; A Windo (T Woodman, 55), P Greening (capt), A Deacon, R Fidler, D Sims, P Glanville (A Stanley, 80), S Devereux, N Carter.

Saracens: A Tunningley; R Wallace, P Sella (K Sorrell, 47), S Ravenscroft, K Chesney; A Lee, K Bracken; A Daly (A Olver, 74), G Botterman, P Wallace, P Johns, A Copsey, J Green (F Pienaar, 52), A Diprose, R Hill.

Referee: A Rowden (Berkshire).