Borthwick puts boot in to leave lowly Leeds flat on their faces
Saracens 39 Leeds 0
Monday 21 February 2011
Wall Street traders talk about the "dead cat bounce", a phrase meaning a small recovery in the price of a declining stock based on the notion that even a deceased feline will rise briefly if dropped from a great enough height. Not for the first time in recent years, Wall Street has it wrong. Leeds, the bottom side in the Aviva Premiership, played like dead cats at Vicarage Road yesterday and found themselves plummeting from a very considerable altitude as a consequence. Did they bounce? Did they hell.
The Yorkshiremen hit terra firma with a fearful smack after just 63 seconds, the Saracens centre Michael Tagicakibau completing the simplest of chargedown tries, and remained flat on their faces for the duration. The home team, keen as mustard in attack and even more motivated in defence, were pretty much done and dusted inside eight minutes when Brad Barritt doubled their advantage. Of all the clubs in the top flight, Leeds are least equipped to play catch-up – and Saracens were out of sight by the interval, which they reached 27 points to the good.
Neil Back, king of the castle at Headingley following the sacking of Andy Key on Thursday, tried to put a brave face on things, but the World Cup-winning flanker has never been much of a pretender. "I've had better weeks," he acknowledged. "We trained well, and our warm-up work before kick-off was crisp and sharp. It just proves there is no direct correlation between what happens before a game and what happens during it. But while the players are disappointed with that performance, which gave no indication of what we're about as a club, it's important to credit the opposition. Saracens turned in the best defensive display I've seen this season and it explains why they're second in the table."
Strange to relate in light of these events, Leeds have every chance of escaping the drop. Of the three northern clubs struggling to make sense of this professional club rugby lark, they have as much chance as any of finding a way through the briar patch and into the rose garden. Sale have better players in important positions but have no clear sense of direction while Newcastle are getting more things wrong, more often, than anyone in the league. Even on this evidence it is possible to see Back's team beating the Tynesiders in six days' time and giving them the unpleasant taste of life in the relegation position.
"At least we have our destiny in our own hands," said the head coach, who will split Key's Director Of Rugby duties with the chief executive Gary Hetherington. "The players are together and they are upbeat. This is the first time they've been 'nilled' all season, but they were trying to put themselves on the scoreboard right to the end. I couldn't fault the effort and commitment."
Of the many things he could fault, the Leeds kicking game was first amongst equals. In the opening minutes there were boot-driven cock-ups and calamities from any number of visiting players, from the full-back Leigh Hinton and the centre Scott Barrow to the outside-half Adrian Jarvis and the scrum-half Warren Fury. Given the one-paced, not to say pedestrian, nature of the Leeds back division they depend more than most teams on an accurate punting game. Yesterday, that punting game was about as accurate as an MP's expenses claim.
It was not as if Saracens needed a helping hand. Steve Borthwick, the deposed England captain, returned to the home pack after a four-week injury lay-off and immediately tightened things up with his customary expertise, shaping the line-out contest to his will, making tackles by the gross and hitting every ruck within a 25-metre radius. He even engaged in some old-fashioned how's-your-father, first with the hooker Steve Thompson and then, more seriously, with Thompson's replacement, Phil Nilsen. It was as if he still felt aggrieved at his shabby treatment by the red-rose management, who waited until he was injured before dropping him like a stone. If so, who could blame him?
There were equally striking contributions from Justin Melck, by some distance the least celebrated of Saracens' bank of back-row forwards but by no means the least effective, and Chris Wyles, the American back who rarely puts a foot wrong. Wyles' second-half try, the last of the five registered by his side, was the event of the afternoon – a cleverly calculated, brilliantly executed combination of ball-showing and side-stepping that left Kearnan Myall, Ceiron Thomas, Lee Blackett and Scott Mathie holding handfuls of thin air.
And then there was Alex Goode, plying his subtle trade from full-back. He may not be the quickest thing on two legs – this, in all probability, explains his continuing absence from the elite England squad – but pace is not everything, even in the increasingly one-dimensional world of rugby as it is played in these parts. No Premiership player has a greater understanding of angles, of timing, of the art of creating space: in these respects, Goode is more French than English. If the national team is to make the best of itself over the four-year stretch leading towards the home World Cup in 2015, it must find a means of accommodating him.
Saracens, then, are well placed for a second successive push towards the Premiership Grand Final. They are fiercely committed, they enjoy each other's company and they have a shared sense of purpose. What is more, Six Nations calls on their squad are at a minimum – not that their head coach, Mark McCall, sees this as any great advantage. "In case people haven't noticed, we've been struggling to field a side because of injuries," he said. "We haven't gone around crying about it. We've just managed it really well." A fair point, well made.
Scorers: Saracens: Tries: Tagicakibau, Barritt, Short, Wigglesworth, Wyles. Conversions: Goode 4. Penalties: Goode 2.
Saracens: A Goode; J Short, M Tagicakibau (R Penney, 60), B Barritt, C Wyles; O Farrell, R Wigglesworth (N De Kock, 50); R Gill (J Saunders, 44), J George (S Brits, 50), C Nieto (M Stevens, 49), S Borthwick (capt), H Smith (H Vyvyan, 57), J Melck, A Saull (J Wray, 66), E Joubert.
Leeds: L Hinton (C Thomas, 53); L Blackett, H Fa'afili. S Barrow (L Burrell ,53), M Stephenson; A Jarvis, W Fury (S Mathie, 53); M MacDonald (G Hardy, 69), S Thompson (P Nilsen, 69), P Swainston (J Gomez, 53), D Browne, M Wentzel (capt, C James, 50), K Myall, H Fourie (J Rowan, 69), A To'oala.
Referee: C White (Gloucestershire).
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