Flood's boot keeps Tigers afloat
Saracens 9 Leicester 9: Sarries held in disappointing stalemate as England hopefuls fire blanks, but Leicester take comfort
Remember the old cup final cliché's about Wembley's huge pitch? It wasn't big enough for either Saracens or Leicester to find a way through or around each other's defences, although the home fly-half Owen Farrell found the distance to the posts problematical, suffering a dose of kicking gyps that contributed to this stalemate in the season's first meeting of two of last year's top four.
Farrell's father Andy sat watching in the stands while cradling his one-year-old baby. Not normally one to throw the toys out of the pram, the recently installed England assistant coach must nevertheless have found it grim to see his eldest son miss four kicks in five first-half attempts.
"It's very rare that would happen to him," said Saracens' head coach Mark McCall, "and everyone is entitled to an off day." Charlie Hodgson, who had guided Saracens to victory the previous two weeks, came on to kick two penalties in the third quarter to level the scores after Toby Flood's three first-half penalties to one by Farrell.
The match was a classic case of two teams cancelling each other out. There was a penalty each here and there at the scrums, a line-out steal for Leicester's Steve Mafi replied to by Sarries nicking one for themselves. And the England backs who tend to make most headlines – Saracens wing Chris Ashton and Leicester's Manu Tuilagi, tipped recently by his coaches as the world's best outside centre in the making – were mostly well held.
Both men looked hard to fracture the defences, but both were tackled into setting up rucks rather than achieving true, flowing continuity. Saracens' breakaway forwards are no mugs, as Tuilagi found. And there has been little between these teams for three years now: a victory each when they contested the Premiership finals of 2010 and 2011, and another close verdict for Leicester in last season's Welford Road semi-final.
It did not help that possession from the breakdown was so slow; either snuffed out all together or drawing straight-arm penalties at length from referee Martin Fox. Nor that the most reliably creative force on view – Leicester's captain and full-back Geordan Murphy – hobbled off early with an injured right knee, pranged on the pitchside artificial turf as he tackled Ashton.
Sarries' full-back Alex Goode – another candidate for the watching Farrell senior's report back to his boss Stuart Lancaster – was equally condemned to isolated moments of finding clear water before a defender holed him below the waterline. It was indicative that the mere award of a penalty in Saracens' own half became the cue for their theme song to be blared out over the public address in the club's ninth match in three seasons of borrowing Wembley: they now have six wins, two defeats and a draw, and if nothing else both they and Leicester maintained their unbeaten start in behind the early leaders Harlequins and Northampton
Each side had a lineout late on from which to launch a possible clincher. On 75 minutes, Flood was caught and turned over near halfway, Hodgson belted a bouncing ball towards the corner flag and Leicester's Scott Hamilton ran it into touch. Steve Borthwick caught John Smit's throw at the tail, and moving into midfield Sarries found Hodgson perpendicular to the left-hand post, but he pushed a short-range drop wide.
Ditto for Leicester up the other end. A wheeled scrum and a penalty to touch took them to a lineout 30 metres from the goalline; but 16 phases later they were 10 metres further away and Flood's drop, though well struck, was off target. "For me that's all about frustration," said Flood, the England incumbent who in a pedestrian performance looked no likelier than his opposite number Farrell to unlock the opposition. The Leicester coach Richard Cockerill gave the pragmatic view: "It was a disappointing game for the spectator," he said, "but we're more pleased with two points away from home than Saracens are with theirs."
Saracens: A Goode; C Ashton, J Tomkins, B Barritt, J Short (C Wyles 59); O Farrell (C Hodgson 50), N de Kock (R Wigglesworth 50); M Vunipola (R Gill 59), S Brits (J Smit 59), C Nieto (P du Plessis 48), S Borthwick (capt; A Hargreaves 27-32), M Botha (Hargreaves 65), K Brown, E Joubert, J Wray (W Fraser 70).
Leicester Tigers: G Murphy (capt; M Smith 14); S Hamilton, M Tuilagi, A Allen, V Goneva; T Flood, S Harrison; L Mulipola (B Stankovich 64), T Youngs (G Chuter 70), D Cole (M Castrogiovanni 50), G Kitchener, G Parling, S Mafi, T Waldrom (J Crane 61), J Salvi.
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