Goode's guile gives Saracens authentic look of champions
Saracens 35 Gloucester 12
Saracens may not know where they will be playing next season – Vicarage Road, the Premiership's equivalent of the Bates Motel without the creature comforts, will pass into rugby history sooner rather than later – but they sure know where they are going.
Last season's runners-up laid into Gloucester, their likely semi-final opponents, with a vengeance yesterday, running in four tries off the back of startling contributions from each and every department of their team. Whisper it quietly, silently even, but they have the look of champions-in-waiting about them.
"They control field position, they don't panic, they play with a lot of maturity." So said Bryan Redpath, the Gloucester head coach, who, despite protestations to the contrary, cannot be relishing a return visit to sunny Watford in the middle of next month – something to which he will have to resign himself unless something very strange happens in the last round of regular-season matches in 12 days' time.
"We're a better side than we showed out there, but I've never claimed we're the best side in England," he continued. "I think we're just a notch off the very top teams, although anyone can win a game of rugby on the day. Saracens? I'd include them amongst the best."
A quick run-through of the home side's virtues, from one to 15, would go something like this: Matt Stevens, back amid the hurly-burly after a two-year suspension for cocaine abuse, played like someone who spent his ban figuring out how to be twice the player he'd been before it and come up with a foolproof way of putting his conclusions into effect. Then there was Schalk Brits, the South African hooker with the skill-set from heaven – or hell, if you happen to be up against him – and Steve Borthwick, who did everything right in that quiet, understated, slightly Eeyore-ish way of his. Jacques Burger? Tempestuous. Ernst Joubert? Very classy. It is tempting to save time by saying that the backs were good too, and move on.
But that would be doing Alex Goode a disservice. The full-back had himself a ball yesterday, from the moment he chased one of Owen Farrell's obliquely-angled punts upfield and made life a misery for Tom Voyce, his opposite number. If Goode missed the resulting penalty from a wide position to the left of the field, thereby passing up a chance to put his side on the scoreboard inside four minutes, he was bang on the money in every other respect. How long will it take the penny to drop with the England management? Probably for ever, given the current regime's selectorial obsessions. This does not, however, mean that the 22-year-old isn't the most creative young English back around.
Unfortunately, he does not possess the extreme pace that appears to be a prerequisite for a Test full-back in red-rose land. The fact that Matt Perry, the best England No 15 of the modern era, spent an entire career not being mistaken for Usain Bolt makes precious little difference to the current regime. As far as Johnson and company are concerned, speed comes first, second and third. On that basis, Goode will never interest them.
Might he move to outside-half next season? As Saracens planned to switch him this season but quickly reconsidered, it seems unlikely, especially as Farrell has made such a terrific fist of the No 10 duties since mid-November and Charlie Hodgson is, almost as we speak, making his way to the club from Sale. Which leaves one of the two centre positions – roles Goode has not performed at any level, if at all. There must at least be a risk of him slipping through the net.
"It's true that in recent times, England have picked pure athletes at full-back," admitted Mark McCall, who coaches Goode at Saracens. "Alex is a lot quicker than he's given credit for, but ultimately, it will depend on who is coaching England. For me, he's the best full-back in the country, and I think he has a big future ahead of him internationally." We shall see.
Not for the first time this season – nor, indeed, the 21st – Goode was at the heart of much of his side's impressive attacking work, linking cleverly with the likes of Farrell and Brits, both of whom distributed the ball brilliantly on occasions. Indeed, it was the South African who claimed the first try, which came as a serious body-blow to West Countrymen, given its genesis.
When the visitors' gifted young stand-off, Freddie Burns, struck the near post with a penalty at the end of the first quarter, there was no obvious danger of Sarries doing anything interesting with the rebound. Cue David Strettle, who ran the ball out of the 22, and Farrell, who found Brits with a sweet long pass, allowing the Springbok to free James Short down the left. Short beat three opponents before off-loading back to Brits, who had scuttled up on his wing's inside shoulder. It was the kind of try Saracens were scoring this time last year, which made it very good indeed.
The succeeding scores were a little less poetic, although Joubert, who claimed the second from a driving maul off a line-out, rarely plays rugby that is wholly prosaic. Stevens, who must surely be of interest to Johnson and his coaching team ahead of the forthcoming World Cup – especially as Andrew Sheridan is short of both form and fitness – bagged the third just after the restart, busting over from Richard Wigglesworth's back-hand flip, while Strettle notched the bonus point three minutes into stoppage time, twinkle-toeing down the short side from another churning maul.
Wherever Saracens eventually make a new home for themselves – almost certainly in Barnet, if the local planners play ball – their supporters will consider it an improvement on current arrangements. But Borthwick and his men could build a stadium on the Elysian Fields and still not play much better than this. It could, maybe should, be their year.
Saracens: Tries Brits, Joubert, Stevens, Strettle. Conversions Goode 3. Penalties Goode 3. Gloucester: Tries Simpson-Daniel, Trinder. Conversion Mills.
Saracens: A Goode; D Strettle, C Wyles, B Barritt, J Short (N Cato 61); O Farrell, N De Kock (R Wigglesworth h-t); M Stevens (R Gill 50), S Brits (J George 65), C Nieto (P Du Plessis 58), S Borthwick (capt), M Botha (H Vyvyan 50, R Penney 67), K Brown (A Saull h-t), J Burger, E Joubert.
Gloucester: T Voyce; C Sharples, H Trinder, E Fuimaono-Sapolu (T Molenaar 50), J Simpson-Daniel; F Burns, D Lewis (R Lawson 56); A Dickinson (N Wood 50), S Lawson (O Azam 67), R Harden (P Doran-Jones 50), W James, J Hamilton (A Brown 44), A Strokosch, A Hazell (L Narraway 19-30 and 44), B Deacon (capt).
Referee: D Pearson (Northumberland).
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