Farrell yellow card helps Ospreys to see defeat as a bonus
Saracens 31 Ospreys 26: Young England hopeful wobbles and Welsh side leave London well placed
Decisions, decisions. Walking up Olympic Way to see a sign that said "turn left for Saracens v Ospreys and right for The X Factor Final", would there be any indecisive rugby supporters joining the huge queue of hopefuls chasing ticket returns at the Wembley Arena? Those who preferred little Shane Williams to Little Mix had enough fun in England's national stadium, and the Welsh left marginally the happier.
It was almost the original see-saw encounter of hoary reporting cliché. Only once, when Owen Farrell kicked two penalties in the eight minutes leading up to half-time – one for an in-at-the-side yellow-card offence by the Ospreys' captain, Tom Smith – did a score by one team go unanswered. Alas for Smith and Ospreys' three Joneses, the 10-point deficit at half-time proved insurmountable but by getting to within seven they earned a bonus that may prove decisive when Pool Five is over. The defeat for Biarritz in Treviso yesterday opens up a route to the quarter-finals for whichever of these sides emerges better placed from their rematch in Swansea on Friday night. Mind you, the Ospreys failed to win in Treviso too, and Saracens have yet to go there.
Anyone advocating Farrell's selection for England in the Six Nations' Championship may have gulped at a couple of kicks he had charged down, and the yellow card the 20-year-old son of the new national assistant coach, Andy, received for an unsubtle body check on Dan Biggar in the 49th minute. Then again, at the outset of a four-year cycle leading to the World Cup, why wait? If Farrell or any other youngster is considered a proper prospect, give them a go now. That is how Wales have been winning fans and the Ospreys, second in the Pro12 as Saracens are in the Premiership, fielded a XV with only one non-Welsh qualified player (the Ireland wing Tommy Bowe).
Farrell senior said on the day of his England appointment: "Rugby is not about playbooks. Rugby is about people wanting to play for one another. To look at the guy at the side of you and know that and be confident that he's on the same page as you. It's not about complications, it's about simple drive, hard work, graft and determination and enjoyment along the way as well."
As part of their rightly praised team spirit Saracens, the Premiership champions, do like to celebrate earning penalties with ostentatious whooping and patting of heads, and they had plenty of opportunity in a match of 25 straight-arm offences awarded by France's Pascal Gaüzère. Fortunately both teams were adept at outflanking the other's blitz defence so it was not all stop-start stuff. Scott Johnson, the Ospreys head coach, railed against the "farcical" refereeing of the scrummage, which suited neither side in the Australian's opinion.
Johnson's Saracens counterpart, Mark McCall, said: "There's mixed emotions. For 50 minutes we were definitely the dominant side so its frustrating the last 30 went away. It turned on the [Farrell] sin-bin."
McCall's side finished with three tries to two; Farrell kicked six from nine and Biggar six from eight. What appeared to let Ospreys back into the match was Sarries' substitution of Schalk Brits – the hooker in his third match back from a ban went off shaking his head, just after his lovely inside pass sent Chris Wyles over for Saracens' third try and a 28-16 lead while Ospreys had 14 men – and Charlie Hodgson. Both had slight injuries, according to McCall.
While Farrell was off for 10 minutes, the Ospreys' young centre Ashley Beck scored his second try from a five-on-three attack on the short side. Beck's first try was a knockabout thriller: a run-in from a ricochet off Hodgson after the scorer had started the move with a grubber to set Bowe on a sprint. That was in the 13th minute, and it came in between tries for Saracens by their Welsh prop Rhys Gill and, embarrassingly for Smith, Ernst Joubert direct from a scrum with a blindside charge.
Another change from Sarries' bench brought on their loanee scrum-half Peter Stringer, and his hack upfield led to a heart-in-mouth moment when Biggar passed towards his posts, Andrew Bishop lost his footing and Jonathan Thomas had to kick dead. The Ospreys front row went down at the resulting scrum and Farrell kicked for 31-23.
But Welsh sides, from Cardiff in the FA Cup of 1927 to Wales while the Millennium Stadium was being built to Swansea in the play-offs, have done OK at Wembley. The Ospreys tapped a little of that fortune when Farrell's charged-down kick left a team-mate isolated and Biggar potted a fourth penalty with six minutes left.
Saracens: A Goode; D Strettle, O Farrell, B Barritt, C Wyles; C Hodgson (J Short, 58), B Spencer (P Stringer, 58); R Gill (D Carstens, 73; Stevens, 80), S Brits (J George, 48), M Stevens (C Nieto, 65), S Borthwick (capt), M Botha (G Kruis, 58), K Brown, E Joubert, J Burger (A Saull, 65).
Ospreys: R Fussell; T Bowe, A Bishop, A Beck, S Williams; D Biggar, R Webb; D Jones (R Bevington, 46), R Hibbard (H Bennett, 46), A Jones, R Jones, J Thomas, T Smith (capt, I Gough, 52), J Bearman (G Stowers, 56), J Tipuric.
Referee: P Gaüzère (France).
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