The World Cup in New Zealand may be less than four months away, but as the people who run the sport on a global basis barely need four hours to muck everything up with a daft adjustment to the tackle-ball law or a fresh lengthening of the already eternal "scrum cadence", no true union aficionado can rest easy in his bed. There is plenty of time for rugby to be threatened anew by the more tries = more entertainment equation, a construct so pathetically infantile that by comparison, the weekly bunfight at Prime Minister's Questions seems positively grown-up.
Over the weekend, the two Premiership semi-finals yielded the grand total of two touchdowns – the kind of return that disturbs the sleep of certain all-too-influential International Board executives. Yet no observer capable of distinguishing between an outside-half and an outside loo could doubt for a second that both games showcased the virtues at the very heart of the 15-man code. Some of the tackling at Vicarage Road yesterday was harder than a Manu Tuilagi punch – well, almost – and when, at the very death, the Gloucester lock Dave Attwood smithereened the Saracens centre Brad Barritt with an all-over body hit that might have moved a mountain, only a blind man could have failed to flinch. It was, to say the least, wonderfully competitive.
Talking of visual impairment, there was much muttering amongst the rival coaching teams about the match officials: Andrew Small, the referee, and his assistants, Paul Dix and Peter Huckle. Mark McCall, the Saracens director of rugby, was seriously cheesed off at the decision that forced Steve Borthwick, his captain, into the sin bin at a highly sensitive point in the contest.
"Everyone knows that was a big error and we expect better on these occasions," he remarked. Meanwhile, Bryan Redpath of Gloucester condemned the officiating as "ropey for both sides".
On the Robin Goodliffe Scale of Complete Cock-Ups, as introduced by the man himself at Welford Road on Saturday, there was nothing higher than a 5.5, but Borthwick's departure almost wrecked the home side's chances of making the grand final for the second successive year. The former England captain was yellow-carded for upending Alex Brown at a defensive line-out and during his absence, Gloucester scored the kind of try Saracens always feared they might score: a counter-attacking sucker-punch of the "what-the-hell-happened-there?" variety, created by Freddie Burns and James Simpson-Daniel, and finished with Chris Ashton-style élan by Nicky Robinson, who promptly added the conversion to give the West Countrymen a 10-9 lead.
One point down, one man down, seven minutes of normal time remaining... Saracens were deep in the smelly stuff. Fortunately for them, Jacques Burger was still on the field. The Namibian back-rower has, without the slightest shadow of a doubt, been one of the players of the season, and while Borthwick was kicking his heels, he showed the very best of himself.
Time and again, he stopped Gloucester's attacking moves at source, his rucking and mauling every bit as ferocious as his tackling. If Namibia had 14 more like him, they would be making World Cup finals rather than making up the numbers.
"He's one of the best things to have happened to this club," declared McCall, warmly. "Jacques came here as a relative unknown, yet he embodies the best of Saracens with his courage and his honesty. He was extraordinary out there."
That he was, and those responsible for dishing out the Premiership gongs last week missed a serious trick by not singling him out for an individual award.
Mind you, Burger could easily have followed Borthwick into the cooler after giving Burns a late one in the Gloucester 22. For reasons best known to themselves, the officials who clocked the offence, which was as transparent as could be, decided it was not an offence at all. Small did, however, spot the most minor of technical misdemeanours by a Gloucester back – it might have been Simpson-Daniel, it might have been Charlie Sharples – at a ruck tight to the touchline on 79 minutes. The penalty facing young Owen Farrell was a tester, especially as he had fluffed four already, but the stand-off nailed it with considerable confidence. "It says everything about Owen that he puts up his hand even when he's been missing," McCall said.
There was rather less confidence about Gloucester's response. They had plenty of possession at the last knockings – Attwood, playing what turned out to be his last game in a Cherry-and-White shirt, made an impact in more ways then one after replacing Jim Hamilton in the boilerhouse – but their knickers were in a fearful twist as the seconds ticked down, to the extent that they failed to see what Basil Fawlty would have called the "bleeding obvious": the need for a drop-goal. Instead, they insisted on running the ball in what Redpath described euphemistically as a "flamboyant" fashion. "I would have done things differently," he lamented, "but I wasn't out there playing."
In truth – and Redpath, to his credit, acknowledged as much – Gloucester were second-best in the areas that really matter when semi-finals and finals come around. Their handling under pressure was suspect, their decision-making confused, their discipline at the breakdown some way short of perfect. Saracens spent much of the first half on the front foot and would have led by rather more than three points at the interval had they taken even 50 per cent of the opportunities they fashioned for themselves.
"Saracens play risk-free rugby, and they defend better than anyone else in the Premiership," Redpath remarked. "When people put those two things together, they're difficult to beat."
Leicester have spent the last few years beating most of their opponents most of the time, but even they may have their work cut out when they take the field at Twickenham on 28 May. It will be a captivating contest, with tries rarer than rocking-horse manure. If the law-makers have a problem with that, who cares?
Saracens: Penalties Farrell 4.
Gloucester: Try Robinson; Conversion Robinson; Penalty Robinson.
Saracens: A Goode; D Strettle, C Wyles, B Barritt, J Short (N Cato 52); O Farrell, R Wigglesworth (N De Kock 50, Wiggleswoth 56, De Kock 61); M Stevens (R Gill 50-81), S Brits, C Nieto (P Du Plessis 75), S Borthwick (capt), M Botha (H Vyvyan 50), K Brown (A Saull 64), J Burger, E Joubert.
Gloucester: F Burns (T Voyce 82); C Sharples, T Molenaar (H Trinder 68), E Fuimaono-Sapolu, J Simpson-Daniel; N Robinson, R Lawson (D Lewis 64); N Wood (A Dickinson 71), S Lawson (D Dawidiuk 82), P Doran-Jones, J Hamilton (D Attwood 52), A Brown, A Strokosch, A Qera (B Deacon 75), L Narraway (capt).
Referee: A Small (London)Reuse content