For the second week running, Saracens travelled to a team from the lower reaches of the Premiership and had the match won by half-time. Any notion that this league comprises a dozen teams of equal strength is a myth that belongs with Santa Claus, the Grinch and Shrek parts one, two and three.
The visitors’ superbly-stocked squad included the England centre Brad Barritt making a reassuringly influential first start since an ankle ligament injury on the season’s opening weekend. Sarries could hardly be in better nick for the trip to Toulouse next Sunday for a pivotal match in the Heineken Cup.
Gloucester? Oh, Gloucester. In deference to a wonderful crowd thronging this cradle of the English game, it feels necessary to report something positive. There was a lovely sunset behind the main stand. The cathedral looked a picture. But Billy Twelvetrees’ team had just one decent attack in the first half, as England’s other No 12 of recent vintage assisted with a break from a dodgy scrum with straight running and smart handling. It was not until as late as the 56th minute and a run by the replacement scrum-half Dan Robson that they got anywhere near Saracens’ goalline.
Ironically, instead of this offering Gloucester a way back into the match – if such a thing was possible, as they were trailing 26-3 at the time – what followed would merely shout louder about their shortcomings.
Saracens’ body angles were brilliant; they might be said to have had a cynical cuteness too in knowing when to concede a penalty, although their England No 8 Billy Vunipola raged at the referee over the decision to send him to the sin bin for holding on in the 56th minute, when Robson’s rare raid was halted. Nor was there any obvious premeditation when Steve Borthwick tipped Vunipola’s opposite number Ben Morgan out of a line-out two minutes later and saw yellow too.
Two men to the good, Gloucester had a scrum in the Saracens 22. Proud Kingsholm front-rowers of old must have been crying into their Milk of Magnesia to see a seven-man Saracens pack featuring Barritt at openside flanker pummel the home side backwards and be awarded a penalty; the exultant body language of Mako Vunipola, Schalk Brits and Matt Stevens was echoed by the cheers of the Sarries coaches.
When shortly afterwards Rob Cook’s ill-executed chip led to a Gloucester offside, Saracens rubbed it in with a penalty for 29-3 by Owen Farrell, who returned from missing last week’s win at Worcester to kick 14 points. With parity in numbers they would have used the penalty to seek their bonus-point fourth try. That it never came was a minor blot on the dusky landscape.
Wackily enough, no sooner had Saracens’ sinners returned to the field than Gloucester scored. A penalty to touch, a lineout drive and a couple of rucks led to Matt Cox’s goalline lunge, but really the public address announcer was on to something early in the match when he thanked the crowd for their attendance. Any later and he might have been hearing calls for their money back. A fifth loss in seven home Premiership matches this season, and only just into the new year… never has Gloucester’s Castle been so Grim.
Too easily, Neil de Kock had skipped to a try for Saracens on the short side of a maul, followed over by David Strettle in the 22nd minute. “We always talk about throwing the first punch,” said Farrell, “taking it to the opposition and not waiting to get going.”
In both the scores, Chris Ashton gave crucial decoy support: guile not glory, to the wing’s credit. Farrell’s three penalties made it 19-0 to Saracens before Twelvetrees, either side of whom Freddie Burns and Jonny May could do little to advance their England claims, kicked a penalty to herald half-time.
As Gloucester’s director of rugby Nigel Davies put it: “Saracens are the kind of team who will find you out if you’re not on top of your game. We were found out today.”
All the more so when Alex Goode, looking bang in form at full-back, profited from Vunipola’s adroit pass out of a tackle for Saracens’ third try, converted by Farrell after 48 minutes, ending a period of Gloucester calumnies including a Burns kick in his 22 charged down.
Having beaten Worcester and London Irish in the past fortnight, Gloucester need not worry about relegation. But John Afoa and Richard Hibbard and whoever else may be added to the front-rowers’ signing for next season cannot get here soon enough. No one can say for sure which cross-border competitions the English clubs may be qualifying for through the League, but the top six which normally leads to the Heineken Cup looks beyond Gloucester, for sure.
Davies’s Saracens counterpart Mark McCall said: “The first 30 minutes was the best we’ve played all season, we had a stranglehold. We’ll go to Toulouse expecting to win, rather than hoping to win.”
Gloucester: R Cook (M Thomas 62); C Sharples, M Tindall (S Monahan 62), B Twelvetrees (capt), J May; F Burns, J Cowan (D Robson 55); N Wood (Y Thomas 75), H Edmonds (D Dawidiuk 45), S Puafisi (S Knight 45-75), E Stooke (W James 61), J Hudson, M Cox, M Kvesic, B Morgan (G Evans 64).
Saracens: A Goode; C Ashton, M Bosch, B Barritt, D Strettle (C Wyles 66); O Farrell (C Hodgson 71), N de Kock (R Wigglesworth 53); M Vunipola (R Gill 61), S Brits (J George 61), J Johnston (M Stevens 55), S Borthwick, A Hargreaves (M Botha 68), J Wray, K Brown (J Melck 66), B Vunipola.
Referee: L Pearce (Devon).