Ambitious Sarries tune up nicely for Europe
Gloucester 17 Saracens 19
Monday 31 October 2011
As preparation for a more determined assault on Europe than last year, Saracens could not wish for much better. After terminating Gloucester's two-year-old ground record in the Aviva Premiership on Saturday, second-placed Saracens will next weekend welcome Sale Sharks, who lie third and are now in the care of former Sarries coach, Steve Diamond.
"That will be tasty," said Mark McCall, the Saracens head coach, but he also noted that Italian side Benetton Treviso, whom Saracens entertain a week later in the Heineken Cup, scored 50 points against Newport Gwent Dragons in the RaboDirect Pro12 on Saturday. If McCall's eye, as coach to the English champions, is on Europe then so it should be.
Saracens are seldom shy about stating their ambitions, as befits a club that has just added a World Cup-winning captain to its ranks. John Smit, whose last game three weeks ago was the World Cup quarter-final defeat of South Africa by Australia, watched his new team at Kingsholm and will have recognised some of the intensity and physicality that characterised the World Cup.
In particular, Smit saw Saracens retain their composure in the face of an aggressive Gloucester defence that knocked the champions out of their stride in the first half. Most knocked about, perhaps, was Schalk Brits, another South Africa hooker but one who has become an icon in the black of Saracens; if there was one player Gloucester were determined who would not break them down, it was Brits but though they subdued him he was never completely quelled.
Nor were the younger, England-qualified brigade. The likes of Owen Farrell and Alex Goode must recognise that change is imminent for England's national side and will believe that they should be part of it; in that respect, the second-half arrival of veteran Mike Tindall in Gloucester's midfield exemplified the likely changing of the guard.
Tindall now represents England past. Farrell and Brad Barritt, who together created the match-winning score, represent the future, as do some of Gloucester's young men – Johnny May and Henry Trinder did their cause no harm at all while Charlie Sharples is already on the England radar. Behind them Olly Morgan reminded Kingsholm that he would surely have won more than two caps in 2007 but for injury.
Morgan made and finished his side's try but Gloucester's failing was converting their first-half superiority into points. Overall they made three clearcut try-scoring chances and took one; Saracens made one and took it. "We gave cheap penalties away," said Bryan Redpath, Gloucester's coach. "We should never have been in that position [to lose the game], we should have sealed it off."
He will be glad to have Tindall back, though, whatever the player's England future may be. "He has always been a good influence in this environment, he's training and playing for Gloucester now," Redpath said. "He can push on and start enjoying his rugby again."
Enjoyment is something that Saracens carry with them now, wherever they go. "We don't care whether we're home or away, we get stuck in," McCall said. "As a collective we stay tight. But we have big European games around the corner [Biarritz and Ospreys are also in their Heineken Cup pool], we have to play better."
The set-piece battle ebbed and flowed, Gloucester's scrum starting and finishing on top while the Saracens lineout worked its way into a position of equality. There will be few better contests on the gain line this season where Jacques Burger, having recovered from fractures to both cheek bones while leading Namibia in the World Cup, found Fiji's Akapusi Qera in unforgiving mood.
Significantly both teams sustained a game of high tempo though Saracens chose to barrel down the middle which left a talented back three on short commons. Twice they trailed by eight points, midway through the first half and again with 15 minutes remaining but the decision to switch goal kickers proved telling.
Charlie Hodgson managed one penalty from three (though one miss was a hit-and-hope from fully 54 metres) before Farrell stepped up to knock over three penalties and keep his side in touch. Then Farrell replaced Hodgson at fly half and, four minutes from time, slid through the delicate grub-kick which Barritt grounded ahead of Rory Lawson, leaving the conversion to Farrell which snatched the result.
Gloucester: Try: Morgan. Penalties: Burns 2, Taylor 2. Saracens: Try: Barritt. Conversion: Farrell. Penalties: Hodgson, Farrell 3.
Gloucester: O Morgan; C Sharples, H Trinder (M Tindall, 55), E Fuimaono-Sapolu, J May (D Lewis, 59); F Burns (T Taylor, 55), R Lawson; N Wood (sin bin 49-59), D Dawidiuk (S Lawson, 59), R Harden, W James, J Hamilton, A Strokosch, A Qera (D Murphy, 50-59), L Narraway (captain; P Buxton, 72).
Saracens: A Goode; D Strettle, O Farrell, B Barritt, J Short (C Wyles, 52); C Hodgson (J Maddock, 67), N de Kock; R Gill (sin bin 49-59), S Brits, C Nieto (M Stevens, 50), S Borthwick (captain), M Botha (H Smith, 52), K Brown, J Burger (D Carstens, 50-59; A Saull, 67), E Joubert.
Referee: T Wigglesworth (Yorkshire)
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