Hodgson's no dummy as Sarries head to quarter-finals on a high

Saracens 40 Edinburgh 7
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Chris Ashton delivered the ultimate example of predatory finishing – two touches, two tries – as Saracens secured their place in the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup.

But it was a superb dummy by veteran Lions and England stand-off Charlie Hodgson that released the tension as he scored the crucial fourth try on 74 minutes.

Joel Tomkins bemused the Edinburgh defence, Hodgson darted, right to left, his body-language suggesting the ball was about to be aimed wide. Instead, he sent a cluster of opponents scuttling towards the tunnel with a deft drop of the shoulder and a dart in by the posts and Owen Farrell converted.

Hodgson, clearly man of the match, ended a chunk of his club's history by chipping in for Chris Wyles to score try number five, Farrell again adding the extras. That means a tough quarter-final tie against Ulster at home in April, arguably the strongest of Ireland's provinces at the moment.

"I'll take two tries from two touches any day." Ashton said. "We knew what we had to do, keep building the pressure on Edinburgh while remaining patient. My second try was all down to Owen. It was his call and a brilliant one because it caught everyone by surprise. Making the last eight is brilliant."

Rugby director Mark McCall paid tribute to his squad. "We were in a very difficult group, so I am proud of our European campaign," he said. "We put in a huge, huge effort because Edinburgh came to defend and defended very well. But our set-piece was strong and we are very fortunate to have such quality in our play-making department."

And so ends 16 years as tenants at Vicarage Road, the beginning of which was marred by tragedy and the end partially obscured by a blizzard The first game scheduled for Saracens at the home of Watford FC was supposed to be against Richmond back in 1997, but was called off because of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.

After 234 games, comprising 173 wins and four draws, Saracens move to a new permanent home, the renamed Copthall Stadium (now Allianz Park) having won both the RFU knockout Cup and the Aviva Premiership along the way.

The minimum requirement in the snow was a four-try bonus point victory in the pursuit of a home quarter-final, although Saracens are probably European rugby's least concerned team when it comes to venues, having already staged 'home' games this season at eight different grounds without loss.

When reminded before kick-off that Edinburgh had declined Saracens earlier invitation to play this game in Cape Town, visiting captain Greig Laidlaw was heard to supress a sob.

And within 15 minutes, Farrell had delivered his opening two goals to get the scoreboard moving, giving substance to the pre-match demand by rugby director Mark McCall that his players focus first on winning the game and securing the quarter-final berth, and only then worry about tries and bonus points.

The ominous signs for Edinburgh concerned the early scrums as the hosts drove their opponents backwards at will, so much so that referee Jérôme Garces wrongly awarded Edinburgh a penalty, accusing Matt Stevens of boring in, when the problem was a total lack of opposing force facing the tighthead.

Pressure continued to tell, Edinburgh continued conceding penalties and Farrell continued to nail them, his third after 22 minutes despite kicking into the driving snow.

Having kicked three, Saracens switched to touch when Edinburgh offended yet again after 27 minutes. Ernst Joubert took the lineout, Richard Wigglesworth chipped the ball behind the defence on the right and Ashton darted through unopposed to score. Farrell's run of 27 consecutive successful kicks ended when his conversion attempt rebounded of the near post.

Just when you anticipated a floodgates effect, Saracens blundered away a 32nd-minute try to the visitors. There seemed no danger when Greig Tonks kicked ahead – until Wigglesworth knocked-on, Brad Barritt got in his way and Tonks hacked on and scored, Laidlaw adding the conversion.

A piece of brilliance by Farrell five minutes into the second half stunned Edinburgh. Awarded another penalty, Saracens shaped as if opting for a kick, but didn't signal a kick. Instead, Farrell cross-kicked left to right where the predatory Ashton gathered and scored while Edinburgh stood, slack-jawed. The rest of them looked slack on 53 minutes when Steve Borthwick gathered a lineout, the maul moved fast and Matt Stevens was driven over without a pause, Farrell converting. The end was nigh for the visitors.

Saracens Tries: Ashton (2), Stevens, Hodgson, Wyles; Cons: Farrell (3); Pens: Farrell (3).

Edinburgh Try: Tonks; Con: Laidlaw.

Saracens: C Wyles, C Ashton (D Taylor, 60), O Farrell, B Barritt (J Tomkins, 72), D Strettle, C Hodgson, R Wigglesworth (N De Kock, 51), M Vunipola (R Gill, 56), S Brits (J Smit, 56), M Stevens (P Du Plessis, 65), S Borthwick, G Kruis, K Brown, E Joubert (M Botha, 60), W Fraser (N Fenton-Wells, 72).

Edinburgh: G Tonks, D Fife, B Cairns, M Scott (B Atiga, 76), T Visser (L Jones, 71), G Laidlaw (P Francis, 76) , R Rees, R Hislop (A Allen, 51), S Lawrie (A Titterell, 51), W Nel (G Cross, 70), G Gilchrist, S Cox (P Parker, 51), S McInally, N Talei.

Referee: J Garces (France).