London Irish made the worst possible start to a Guinness Premiership campaign in which they were hoping to shrug off their "nearly men" tag as a new-look Saracens ground out a tight victory in a fractious match.
The Exiles underperformed on their return to the ground where they lost last season's grand final to Leicester. Ryan Lamb, their new fly-half, faded after a bright start and missed four of six shots at goal – the misses ultimately cost his side the match. But to blame the defeat entirely on the 23-year-old former Gloucester man would be to ignore the number of basic mistakes Irish made, especially in an error-strewn first half.
It would also be harsh on Sarries, who battled like warriors in a display that warmed the heart of their new director of rugby, Brendan Venter – a former London Irish player and coach – and his captain, Steve Borthwick.
"We showed great character. The willingness of the players to put themselves out for each other won us that game," Borthwick said.
From a team who have been labelled "Little South Africa", owing to their summer recruitment policy, it was a very Springbok-like performance. Saracens fed off Irish mistakes and their fly-half, the New Zealander Glen Jackson, turned the scraps into points. The 33-year-old scored an opportunistic opening try and set up the second for Andy Saull before the break. He also kicked his goals, finishing with 13 points.
"He was superb," said Venter, who had picked Jackson ahead of Derick Hougaard, one of six South Africans to arrive at Vicarage Road this summer.
Lamb, who made some cool touch-finders early on, is hoping to flourish under the tutelage of Irish's attack coach, Mike Catt. He had no problems with the ball in hand here, but his place-kicking left much to be desired. He cancelled out an early Jackson penalty but that was as good as it got for Irish before the break.
Whether throwing quick line-outs forward or kicking into touch on the full, the Exiles were out of sorts. They looked like the team who had undergone a summer revolution, not Saracens.
In the 21st minute, Jackson stunned the Irish defence by opting for a quick tap, rather than a kick at goal. The Exiles were sleeping and the fly-half sped off down the left to dummy his way over in the corner. He converted and kicked a second penalty and he was the architect behind his team's second try, scored in the 34th minute by Saull. The flanker latched on to Jackson's cross-field punt to touch down on the right.
Given that they are a team with bags of potential and a summer of stability behind them, you would have thought things could not get any worse for the Irish. They did, as Lamb missed two early second-half penalties, one of which was a sitter. He did find his range from 20 yards to reduce his team's deficit to 18-6 on the hour, but by that time both sides had been reduced to 14 men. Delon Armitage and Schalk Brits were sent to the sin-bin for their parts in a mini-brawl.
Saracens went down to 13 when Ernst Joubert was shown a yellow card for cynical play at a ruck, and they needed a huge effort to keep Irish out. A number of overlaps were wasted by the Exiles, who ended up with just George Stowers' burrowing try and a Delon Armitage penalty to show for their efforts.
"It was a stark reminder of how competitive this league is," said Irish's coach, Toby Booth. "We were ring-rusty and made too many unforced errors."
Saracens: A Goode; N Cato, K Ratuvou, B Barritt, C Wyles; G Jackson (D Hougaard, 73), N de Kock (J Marshall, 69); R Gill (T Mercey, 64), S Brits, C Nieto, S Borthwick (capt), H Vyvyan (M Botha, 61), W van Heerden (F Ongaro, 53-63; M Owen, 78), E Joubert, A Saull.
London Irish: D Armitage; A Thompstone, E Seveali'i (P Richards, 40), S Mapusua, S Tagicakibau; R Lamb (P Hewat, 64), P Hodgson; C Dermody (capt; D Murphy, 69), D Coetzee (J Buckland, 52), P Ion (F Rautenbach, 52), A Perry, N Kennedy (B Casey, 52), D Danaher (G Stowers, 8-13), C Hala'Ufia (Stowers, 52), S Armitage.
Referee: D Pearson (Northumberland).