The try by Charlie Hodgson that ended more than four fallow hours without Saracens scoring one was, on the face of it, the difference in denying London Welsh an even better result from their latest tilt at unseating the Premiership establishment. After Gavin Henson had thrown out a pass from the Gods to set up Welsh's own second try, the upstart Exiles finished cursing a baffling scrum decision that ruined a comeback charge.
Henson, perhaps thankfully for the often controversial fly-half making his delayed debut for the Welsh after cracking a cheekbone in pre-season, was a mere observer at the added-time scrums that got the home coach's goat. Lyn Jones said the referee Luke Pearce apologised to the London Welsh players afterwards for "incorrectly ending the match on an incomplete scrum"; Pearce ruled Welsh were responsible for a collapse as they put in on the Saracens goalline, when at the scrum just before he penalised Sarries' Petrus du Plessis for collapsing. Still Jones was more of a mind to laugh than cry as his team moved a comforting nine points clear of the bottom club Sale Sharks. His narrative of Henson's lovely looped pass in the build-up to Tom Arscott's 74th-minute try was a gem. "We all saw the pass and thought 'what the hell's he doing?'" Jones said. "Then we all thought 'oh, that's the way'."
What the hell Henson has been doing in the past few years has often been a mystery, as he helter-skeltered around reality television and unfulfilling stints at Saracens, Toulon and Cardiff Blues following a injury-influenced exile of disillusion in the summer of 2009. Might the perma-tanned hero of two Wales Grand Slams find his nightmare ends here near Oxford's Dreaming Spires? It will take more than 80 minutes to judge but to make it through 80 without mishap was a good start. "There's the player on the field, the player in training and the player in the clubhouse," said Jones, Henson's one-time Ospreys coach. "At the moment he's ticked all the boxes."
These clubs were each other's first opponents in the second division when leagues in England began in 1987. Saracens spent big and painstakingly reached the heights of their first Premiership title two seasons ago. Welsh went swiftly in the opposite direction, but are fighting for their top-flight rights now. The dire predictions many made for them were lacking in two known unknowns: just how good or bad is the Premiership and how well would Welsh adjust? With two wins and two losing bonus points from the last four matches they have been cute in the tight, used bright-minded backs to attack without being stupidly ambitious and driven over the ruck after the tackle. Oh, and according to Saracens' director of rugby Mark McCall, they seal off with "the most illegal maul in the Premiership".
Jones has been receiving coaching assistance from Tony Hanks, late of Wasps and Sale, and Kingsley Jones. A stroke of luck helped too as Welsh took the lead while down to 14 men. Hodgson's stray pass was hacked on from halfway by Welsh's Canadian wing Phil MacKenzie who won the foot race with James Short. The conversion for 7-0 gave Henson his first points in the English Premiership, not that he had much chance during his previous three matches with Saracens. He appeared yesterday to sympathise not scowl when things went wrong; to appreciate, at 30, that talent and self-expression are useful only when it suits the team.
Hodgson is slightly further ahead in the scoring stakes: extending his wondrous Premiership record here to 2,061. But though he went in at half-time with 19 to his name they had not been straightforward in coming. Pressure was applied by kicking penalties to touch – the desire to upset Saracens' totemic Steve Borthwick cost Welsh's captain Jon Mills an early trip to the sin-bin – and a maul up the middle enabled Hodgson to run through a broken defence for a try he converted after 17 minutes. One miss from 45 metres and four successes had Saracens 19-13 up – to generous applause Henson kicked penalties in the 26th and 39th minutes – but not at full pelt with three other England backs Alex Goode, Brad Barritt and Chris Ashton rested, and Schalk Brits, Kelly Brown and Ernst Joubert absent from the pack.
Henson used the comfort-blanket of Hudson Tonga'uiha to pop passes to until the centre hurt a shoulder in a marginally legal tackle by Jackson Wray. When Hodgson broke the defensive line again on 49 minutes, Welsh only escaped when Andy Saull spilled in Tonga'uiha's tackle. Five minutes later, Mills was pinged for not rolling away and Hodgson's kick gave Saracens room to breathe at 22-13. Another penalty apiece for Hodgson and Henson soon followed.
Though Welsh's Franco-Romanian axis at prop kept Sarries sweating it was a surprise when the gap was closed. Henson's steepling kick drew a return up and under, Seb Jewell span out of a tackle and Henson's lob off his right hand freed Nick Scott and MacKenzie on the left, with Arscott supporting at pace. Hodgson's seventh penalty with five minutes remaining was the final score but far from the final act.
London Welsh: T Arscott; P MacKenzie, J Lewis, H Tonga'uiha (S Jewell 62), N Scott; G Henson, T Keats; F Montanella (T Bristow 70), D George (G Bateman 49), P Ion (A Joly 72), J Mills (capt), M Corker, D Browne (K Kulemin 59), M Denbee (A To'oala 64), E Jackson.
Saracens: C Wyles; D Strettle, J Tomkins (K Ratuvou 57), O Farrell, J Short; C Hodgson, R Wigglesworth (N de Kock 51; Wigglesworth 74); R Gill (M Vunipola 47), J Smit (J George 57), M Stevens (P du Plessis 62), S Borthwick (capt), G Kruis, W Fraser, A Saull, J Wray.
Referee: L Pearce (Devon).
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