Rugby Union: Saracens slowly hit top gear

Saracens 29 London Irish 21
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The Independent Online
THE alarm bells were ringing for Saracens, but not until late in the game, and by then their pretensions to the inaugural Allied Dunbar Premiership title had been severely shaken by rugby's own revivalists London Irish. Life has been interesting for the Exiles under Dick Best, who has been brought to Sunbury as coaching consultant.

Under the former England and Harlequins coach, London Irish had prospered, to the tune of five wins in eight league outings. They looked to be well on the road to a sixth, having given leaders Saracens a lesson or two, particularly in recycling at pace (and to telling effect) and in defence.

Considering how much they claim to want the championship Saracens gave the impression that they could not have cared care less for the best part of an hour. And Irish certainly did not behave as if the bulk of the First Division lay between these two sides during a progressively awkward first half for Saracens. Gavin Johnson's early penalty was quickly wiped out by a smartly taken drop goal by outside half David Humphreys.

Saracens began by trying to concentrate their efforts into the forward exchanges and they repeatedly looked for ways through the middle, Irish though are canny in defence and there were frequent turnovers which then allowed them to bring their backs into play. This was where they looked to have the edge on their more illustrious rivals.

South African centre Brendan Venter and Ireland international Mark McCall displayed an essential element of attacking back play - quick hands. The ball was moved with speed and dexterity and there always seemed to be a green shirt on hand to maintain the momentum. Once such move resulted in the Exiles 33rd-minute try. London Irish had pushed upfield and when they saw a glimpse of daylight through the black-shirted defence it was curtains for Saracens, down the line went the ball and over the line went Niall Woods, who had earlier kicked two penalties.

The second half went pretty much the same way as its predecessor; first Johnson kicked a penalty then Irish scored a second try, a simpler effort when scrum-half Niall Hogan nipped round the open side at a scrum and crossed unopposed. Finally they shook off their sloth and creaked into action. Having forced their way into range they moved right from a scrum and Brendon Daniel, racing in from his own left wing, crossed over on the right.

Six minutes later the gap had narrowed further after replacement flanker Ben Sturnham, a colossus of a player who brought some serious dynamism to Saracens play, steamed into the backs and stormed over to bring the 8,000 or so crowd to its feet.

When Daniel scooped up what was left of a wild pass by a (fortunately) anonymous Irishman with two minutes to go victory was safely in Saracens' hands, because by then Johnson had kicked two more penalties as well as converting the last try and the title race remains open.

Saracens: Tries Daniel 2, Sturnham; Conversion Johnson; Penalties Johnson 4.

London Irish: Tries Woods, Hogan; Conversion Woods; Penalties Woods 2; Drop goal Humphreys.

Saracens: G Johnson; M Singer (R Wallace, 59), P Sella, K Sorrell, B Daniel (R Constable, 79); A Lee, M Olsen; A Olver (R Grau, 49), G Chuter, P Wallace, P Johns, D Grewcock, A Bennett, A Diprose (capt), A Roques (B Sturnham, 49).

London Irish: C O'Shea (capt); J Bishop, B Venter, M McCall, N Woods; D Humphreys, N Hogan; J Fitzpatrick, R Kellam (A Redmond, 71), G Halpin, N Harvey, M O'Kelly, K Spicer (M Morahan, 61), I Feaunati, K Dawson.

Referee: S Lander (Liverpool).