Rugby Union: Saracens miss wake-up call

Saracens 30 Harlequins 38
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The Independent Online
AS A World Cup-winning captain, Francois Pienaar understands the value of hitting the ground running at 3pm on match day. Sadly for the South African player-coach, yesterday's "massive home four-pointer" - Pienaar's own description - kicked off at 2.15pm, leaving a nasty little gap of 45 minutes for Saracens to negotiate. They did not even look like coming to terms with the early start and, by the time they started playing, Harlequins were over the Hertfordshire hills and half-way back down the M25 with a 15-point advantage.

The fact that Sarries, belatedly inspired by Alain Penaud and Tony Diprose, came within an ace of stealing the unlikeliest of victories will merely exacerbate Pienaar's frustration. The cup holders are now out of the Premiership top six for the first time in 20 months, out of the European Cup qualifying zone, and wholly out of sorts. By way of adding injury to insult, the big Transvaaler himself may be on the sidelines for the remaining four matches of the campaign.

While Pienaar certainly tweaked and maybe tore the ligaments in his right knee at a 21st-minute ruck, he at least left Watford in better shape than his fellow southern hemisphere great, Zinzan Brooke, who went off on a stretcher and was taken to the general hospital adjoining Vicarage Road after suffering what was feared to be a serious neck injury.

"Thankfully, Zinny quickly regained a full range of movement and he smiled when we told him the result," said John Gallagher, Quins' rugby director. "The doctor tells us he has a compression between two vertebrae, so it's not as bad as it might have been."

Brooke's All Black know-how was much in evidence in the opening half as Quins brought pace and pizzazz to their act. They looked dangerous whenever the ball went wide and Dan Luger and Daren O'Leary claimed tries on either wing in the space of six minutes. A more prosaic five-pointer from their hooker Tom Murphy made it 25-10 at the break and with several of the Saracens big guns, notably Gavin Johnson and Paddy Johns, in poor shape, the gap looked decisive.

Pienaar's interval address had a positive effect: Johnson immediately cut the deficit with a penalty and Brendon Daniel outstripped both O'Leary and Will Carling to claim his second try. But Thierry Lacroix, on for the bloodied Rob Liley, landed two quality penalties either side of Brooke's departure and, with a winning margin reclaimed by the visitors, a late exchange of tries was largely irrelevant.

"It was a quick game, the quickest we've played since we took on Saracens at home before Christmas," said Gallagher, whose side have pieced together a five-match unbeaten run at precisely the right time. "It's a big victory for us and it gives us a chance of Europe next season." Pienaar believes Saracens also have a chance, but 30 minutes of decent rugby a week will never add up to a passport.

Luger announced after the match that he will be leaving Quins at the end of the season.

Saracens: Tries Daniel 2, penalty try; Conversions Johnson 3; Penalties Johnson 3. Harlequins: Tries Luger, O'Leary, Murphy, Sheasby; Conversions Liley 2, Lacroix; Penalties Liley 2, Lacroix 2.

Saracens: G Johnson (S Ravenscroft, 86); R Thirlby (J Thomson, 70), R Constable, K Sorrell, B Daniel; A Penaud, M Olsen; R Grau, G Chuter, B Reidy, P Johns, K Chesney, R Hill, A Diprose, F Pienaar (capt, B Cole, 21).

Harlequins: J Williams; D O'Leary (J Keyter, 86), P Mensah, W Carling, D Luger; R Liley (T Lacroix, 52), N Walshe (C Wright 62); J Leonard, T Murphy (C Ridgeway, 65), R Nebbett (G Halpin, 56), G Llewellyn, G Morgan, Z Brooke (capt, W Davison, 72), C Sheasby, R Jenkins (A Leach, 59).

Referee: E Morrison (Bristol).