If London Welsh are in the mood for prayer – and if ever there was a time for the Exiles to prostrate themselves before the Almighty and beg for mercy, this is it – their solemn wish must be for someone, somewhere to give them an even break. The Premiership newcomers appear before a Rugby Football Union tribunal tomorrow to answer charges of fielding an incorrectly registered player in nine early-season games, and if they are as out of luck at Twickenham as they were in the northern reaches of the capital yesterday, they can kiss goodbye to their top-flight status.
No one gave Lyn Jones's side a cat's hope in Hades against Saracens, whose drive towards a second title in three seasons is gathering momentum by the week. The prospect of being docked points hung over them like a shroud and to make matters worse they were without some of the players who mean most to them: the centre Hudson Tonga'uiha, the hooker Neil Briggs and the No 8 Ed Jackson, to name but three. When Franck Montanella, their heavyweight champion of a scrummager, failed a fitness test a few hours before kick-off, they must have wondered whether the trip across town would be worth the fuss and bother.
Yet they played their hearts out, to the degree that Saracens were a mere nine points to the good as the game moved into the final quarter. Even when Will Fraser, an international back-rower in waiting who turned in another high-calibre performance, claimed the home side's third try with a quality finish in the left corner, they refused to give up the ghost. Within four minutes, Gavin Henson replied in kind for the Exiles, only to see his score ruled out by the television match official Andrew Small, who spotted some obstruction in the build-up. It was enough to make a parson swear.
Sadly for the visitors, that was not the end of it. The officials rubbed their noses even deeper in the ordure nine minutes from time when David Strettle, one of the wings in the shake-up for an England run against Italy in six days' time, cruised through a hole the size of Hertfordshire to claim an attacking bonus for Saracens.
Henson was apoplectic, and the reason was clear: he had been impeded as he led the London Welsh defensive line at the start of the move. Needless to say, Mr Small did not rule this one out, for the very good reason that the on-field referee, Luke Pearce, did not make a referral. As the old bluesmen used to sing, nobody wants to know you when you're down and out.
Jones, who has played an absolute blinder as head coach this season, tried his damnedest not to let rip over the injustice of it all, but he could not help making a point or two as the dust settled. "Saracens are the form side in this league, a side who deserve to be where they are, and if we were to take anything from the match we not only had to be on top of our own game, but also needed some things to go our way," he said. "We probably weren't on top of our game, and things definitely didn't go our way.
"Gavin's try was disallowed. OK, that's the decision. But it was also plain to see that he was obstructed in the move that led to Strettle's try. That it wasn't referred bewilders me. Also, the rulings around the tackle area were completely confusing. We were penalised early and changed what we were doing in response, only to find that in the second half everything was different again. Coaches, players… none of us is perfect and everyone makes mistakes. All we want is consistency, but there isn't any."
The player at the centre of the registration rumpus, the scrum-half Tyson Keats, played virtually the whole game – a triumph of commitment and resourcefulness at the end of what must have been a desperate few days, even though London Welsh officials have gone out of their way to insist that he was in no way to blame for whatever registration blunders were committed in his name. If, as widely expected, the Exiles are relieved of some of their hard-earned points tomorrow, he will inevitably feel terrible. They are a mere three ahead of Sale, the bottom club, and cannot afford any sort of deduction, let alone a big one.
Unusually, Keats took the field with full headgear. If this was an attempt to play the game incognito, it was not a ruse that had been properly thought through: for a start, he had his name plastered across the back of his shirt. Within minutes, the New Zealander had ditched the helmet, possibly because he no longer cared. Whatever the reason, he proceeded to give every last drop of himself to the London Welsh cause, even though he must have known from the start that it would be a losing one.
Saracens did not operate at anything like full tilt, but a couple of early penalties from Charlie Hodgson set them on their way and they were able to ride the shock of an out-of-the-blue Exiles try on 25 minutes – the Canadian right wing Phil Mackenzie started the move, the former Harlequins left wing Seb Stegmann finished it – by applying some serious muscle at the sharp end. As the heavy mob drove a maul after a clever Ernst Joubert-Steve Borthwick line-out routine, Tom Bristow dragged the thing to earth and conceded a penalty try. The prop was also shown a yellow card for his trouble.
London Welsh's resistance was always likely to be tested most relentlessly in the third quarter and sure enough, Saracens moved clear with a Joel Tomkins score eight minutes after the interval. Tomkins was put away by his fellow centre Duncan Taylor, who has a chance of breaking into the Scotland squad for this weekend's Six Nations game with Wales.
As the second half unfolded, however, it was Fraser who caught the eye most frequently. "I think he's ready for international rugby now," said the Saracens coach, Mark McCall. "Certainly, I think he'll go to Argentina with England in the summer. People forget that he's been playing in the Premiership for only 16 months; before then, he had three years of injury trouble, to the extent that we were all wondering if professional union was going to work out for him. I'm delighted with his progress. Will is a genuine open-side flanker with a full range of No 7 skills."
He is that. Watch this space.
Saracens: Tries Penalty try, Tomkins, Fraser, Strettle; Conversions Hodgson 3; Penalties Hodgson 3. London Welsh: Try Stegmann; Penalties Henson 2; Drop goal Henson.
Saracens C Wyles; J Short (B Ransom 69), J Tomkins, D Taylor (N Mordt 51), D Strettle; C Hodgson, R Wigglesworth (N De Kock 51); R Gill (N Auterac 20), S Brits (J George 61), M Stevens (P Du Plessis 58), S Borthwick (capt), A Hargreaves (M Botha 56), J Wray, W Fraser (A Saull 66), E Joubert.
London Welsh T Arscott; P MacKenzie, S Parker, S Jewell, S Stegmann; G Henson, T Keats (A Davies 77); T Bristow (W Moss 71), G Bateman (D George 56), J Tideswell (P Ion 56), J Mills (capt), K Kulemin (M Corker 56), J Cabello Farias, M Hills, A To'oala (Moss 37-44, D Browne 59).
Referee L Pearce (RFU).