Farrell rises above confusion up front
Saracens 15 London Irish 11
There is just a chance that rugby's law-breakers will shorten the so-called "scrum cadence": all the crouching, touching, pausing and heavy petting that goes on before the engagement and invariably ends with an exchange of phone numbers between the rival props and a penalty to one side or the other. Pray God it happens.
Yesterday's game at Vicarage Road between two of the Premiership's hardest-working, best-prepared sides disappeared into the dark depths of what amounted to a single set-piece, leaving the crowd – what there was of it – wondering whether an afternoon in front of the telly might have been more rewarding. What started as a high-quality contest at the sharp end featuring four very good props went wrong well before the interval and continued to go downhill in the second 40 minutes, denying both teams a platform. Alex Corbisiero, the young England loose-head specialist, is an undemonstrative sort, but he spent the best part of an hour looking utterly bemused before being replaced by a New Zealand Test forward in Clarke Dermody, who was every bit as baffled in next to no time.
"Saturday night, 9pm: that's when all the numbers come out, isn't it?" asked Toby Booth, the Exiles head coach, suggesting the officiating of the scrum was no more predictable than a lottery. "Actually, I don't have a problem with the cadence itself. It allows people to be accurate in what they're doing. What we need are officials who work better as a team of three, because one man can't have eyes everywhere. We're in the business of trying to get a game going, but there are times..."
What he wanted to say without quite saying it was that deadbeat matches like this are counter-productive in terms of building the audience for club rugby. Not that it was a complete turn-off for the connoisseur. There was much to admire, yet again, in the way the Saracens outside-half Owen Farrell went about things. Indeed, without his goal-kicking prowess and general enthusiasm, the champions would undoubtedly have lost. The Exiles also had their star turns, notably second-rower Matt Garvey, whose 40-metre rampage midway through the opening quarter was merely the most striking of his many contributions.
London Irish really should have capitalised when the 24-year-old forward made monkeys of both Carlos Nieto and Ben Spencer in open field before smashing James Short out of the road with a hand-off and giving his backs heaven-sent position deep in the Sarries 22. Sadly for them, all they gained from the incident was a temporary numerical advantage, former Springboks captain John Smit packed off to the cooler for burgling the ruck.
"Look at the locks out there today: there were three internationals and Matt, and I don't think anyone would argue that he wasn't the best of them," Booth remarked. "He constantly offered himself as a carrier, made an impact and looked the epitome of the modern second-row."
It was Garvey's partner in the boilerhouse, Nick Kennedy, who should have opened the try-count before half-time when, after Jonathan Spratt cottoned onto a fortunate ricochet down the left, he drove to within an inch of the line – he had only to stretch out his left arm. Instead, he chose to continue the attack by setting up a ruck – leading to a Saracens penalty rather than a score for his own side.
If the champions themselves, expected to sign the veteran Ireland scrum-half Peter Stringer from Munster today, went frustratingly close on two occasions – Farrell's chips almost led to tries for Short and Ernst Joubert – they at least managed to land their kicks, opening up a 15-6 lead as the clock ticked down to single figures. Yet, as per usual, the Exiles found a way of taking something from the contest when David Paice, their substitute hooker, made the line from a driving maul.
Scorers: Saracens: Penalties Farrell 5. London Irish: Try Paice. Penalties Homer, Bowden.
Saracens: A Goode; J Maddock (D Strettle, 5), C Wyles, A Powell, J Short (D Taylor, 68); O Farrell, B Spencer; M Stevens, J Smit (J George, 55), C Nieto (R Gill, 48), S Borthwick (capt), M Botha (G Kruis, 50), J Wray (George, 13-19), A Saull, E Joubert.
London Irish: T Homer (G Armitage, h-t); T Ojo, J Ansbro, J Spratt, A Thompstone; D Bowden (capt), P Hodgson (DAllinson, 50); A Corbisiero (C Dermody, 52), J Buckland (D Paice, 50), P Ion (F Rautenbach, 52), N Kennedy (B Evans, 50), M Garvey, D Danaher, J Gibson, C Hala'ufia (O Treviranus, 69).
Referee A Small (London).
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