Burger king as Saracens stand firm in fierce battle
Ospreys 13 Saracens 16
The strongest side in Wales and the English champions are engaged in an increasingly bitter rivalry at Heineken Cup level and that rivalry boiled over into something seriously meaningful in Swansea last night, particularly in the scrum.
When the dust settled, it was Saracens who felt good about life, having condemned Ospreys to their first home defeat in this competition in six years and taken complete charge of their qualifying group.
Front-row forwards have appropriately long memories, so total recall of events between the rival threesomes at Wembley six days previously was a given. On that occasion, the Welshmen were left spitting feathers at the bizarre set-piece officiating of the French referee Pascal Gauzère – the Lions prop Adam Jones spent much of the contest in a state of utter bemusement – so the prospect of one of Gauzere's countrymen, Jerome Garces, taking on the whistling duties here was not entirely welcome.
There were two significant fallings-out in the opening quarter, the second of which persuaded Garces to issue a severe warning to the Wales international Paul James and the England prop Matt Stevens. At this point, Ospreys appeared to be holding the whip hand at close quarters, but when play resumed with yet another scrum, the referee awarded Saracens a hotly disputed free kick.
Thereafter, the vast majority of set-piece get-togethers ended in an argument, some of them verbal, others pugilistic. There was also some rugby. Five minutes into the second quarter, the scores were level at six points apiece: two penalties from Owen Farrell, cancelled out by two similar strikes from Dan Biggar. Then, the latter attempted a clearance from a Saracens restart and found himself being comprehensively charged down by Charlie Hodgson. When the ball bobbled into the Ospreys in-goal area, the visiting No 8 Ernst Joubert was the first to react. His touchdown was promptly improved by Farrell, giving the pool leaders a handy lead.
This was extended nine minutes later when Garces took offence at Ospreys' approach to a defensive ruck and Farrell banged over a third penalty. Ten points adrift and really angry by now, the Welshmen went looking for their opponents at the very next opportunity, which happened to be one of the scrum variety. To nobody's great surprise they were penalised again, and this time, James was pointed to the cooler.
Leaving aside the Garces factor, Saracens were good value for an interval lead of some description on the basis of their defence alone. Jacques Burger, nothing short of heroic for Namibia at the global gathering in New Zealand during the autumn, was every bit as venomous in his tackling last night: every time Ospreys, generally through Ryan Jones and Richard Hibbard, tried to make something happen at close quarters, they ran into the same problem – a problem with long, straggly hair and a majestically broken nose.
Not that Burger could single-handedly prevent Ospreys cranking up the heat after the break. Ashley Beck, the home side's centre, twice threatened to score down the right, the first time after a brilliant contact pass from Hibbard, the second after leaving Alex Goode for dead tight to the touchline. But these outbreaks of inspiration were high water marks in a sea of trouble. Schalk Brits, the Saracens hooker, followed James to the sin bin midway through the third quarter for a scrum offence; Ian Gough and Mouritz Botha, the rival locks, engaged in a full and frank exchange of views at a line-out; Biggar was tripped in open field by Kelly Brown, who was also given 10 minutes' rest without the option.
That last incident did Saracens no good at all. Badly stretched by Biggar, who orchestrated an attack that went from one side of the field to the other, they could not prevent Gough sliding in at the right flag for a try handsomely converted by his outside-half. Yet it was the Premiership side, nursed along by the substitute scrum-half Peter Stringer, who finished the stronger.
Scorers: Ospreys: Try Gough; Conversion Biggar; Penalties Biggar 2. Saracens: Try Joubert; Conversion Farrell; Penalties Farrell 3.
Ospreys: R Fussell (H Dirksen 55); T Bowe, A Bishop, A Beck, S Williams; D Biggar (M Morgan 76), R Webb (K Fotuali'i 53); P James (D Jones 57), R Hibbard, A Jones, I Gough, I Evans (J Bearman 71), R Jones, J Tipuric (capt, G Stowers 76), J Thomas.
Saracens: A Goode; D Strettle, O Farrell, B Barritt, C Wyles (J Short 51); C Hodgson (A Powell 71), B Spencer (P Stringer 60); R Gill, S Brits (J Smit 71), M Stevens (C Nieto 60), S Borthwick (capt, G Kruis 70), M Botha, K Brown, J Burger (A Saull 70), E Joubert (Smit 55-60).
Referee: J Garces (France).
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