Match Report: Saracens find cutting edge on new ground

Saracens 31 Exeter Chiefs 11: After failed kicks and fumbles, Hodgson and Vunipola pile on points

Allianz Park

If you have a strong moral or spiritual devotion to rugby being played only on grass, this would be a good time to get your campaign going. The pace of movement and high count of clean and completed scrums made a compelling argument in favour of Saracens' artificial pitch on the day the fantastic plastic came to the English Premiership.

With England's Owen Farrell, Brad Barritt, Alex Goode and Chris Ashton as non-playing spectators, Saracens, who had played one match here before against Cardiff Blues in the LV= Cup, dispelled any doubts their rigid style might not cope, harvesting a bonus point for four tries.

Three of them went to the props Mako Vunipola, with two, and Matt Stevens. Perhaps the energy they saved not constantly picking themselves up from reset scrums served them well elsewhere. If you get your kicks from finishing a match caked in mud or aquaplaning 20 metres through puddles for tries, Allianz Park is not for you.

Both goal-kickers, Charlie Hodgson and Gareth Steenson, had trouble adjusting at first. Hodgson has trimmed the lip off his kicking tee so he can push it, cake-cutter-like, into the surface, but in still conditions the former England fly-half missed his first three shots; the third more or less directly in front of the posts.

Saracens' backs Joel Tomkins and Adam Powell fumbled when tries were on. So it was with some relief for Saracens that two things happened around the half-hour.

Having kicked a penalty for touch, they went left to right and Hodgson darted through a gap left by Jason Shoemark being tied into a ruck. Hodgson added the conversion for a 7-3 lead. Steenson had kicked a penalty for Exeter after 24 minutes, but missed from long, short and ridiculously short range twice before half-time.

With Saracens in the hunt for a treble of League, Heineken Cup and LV= Cup, they may need a new trophy cabinet here to go with the revolutionary pitch. Unlike the hybrid weaves at Twickenham and several professional football clubs, there is no grass; rather a bespoke surface for rugby topped off with 65mm blades of synthetic turf – picture a shagpile carpet made from the foliage of an artificial Christmas tree – filled in with black rubber crumb.

The players report that it has some give but does not give way. There were 14 scrums called, three were reset, and with three penalties the rest produced fast, playable ball – way above the normal average.

Some things are old-school. The programme carried a big photo of the Angels cheerleaders in leather jackets and skimpy shorts; Stevens was hailed for having won a midweek pie-eating contest. It is not as if there are motorbikes and a spiked ball in play. And there are things you cannot do here – play football, for one, as the pitch is marked permanently for rugby. Or throw a javelin.

But Shaftesbury Barnet Harriers athletic club and the local council have unsurprisingly been happy to welcome their deep-pocketed tenants on a 99-year lease. Saracens' chief executive and ideas man, Ed Griffiths, grabbed the PA mic beforehand to thank the club's South African backers Remgro – headed by the tycoon Johann Rupert – for the "£25 million of investment" that has spruced up a dilapidated venue out of the book of 1960s East German architecture. Big investment too, from the German bankers with the naming rights.

The paying punters joined queues 15 or 20 deep for a pre-match beer in the "biggest bar in rugby", ecstatic to be anywhere other than Watford's Vicarage Road. Their new home is no aesthetic dream but the £500,000 pitch is looking extra-shrewd given the confluence of bad winter weather and last weekend's Six Nations' Championship when the grass pitches at Stade de France and Aviva Stadium cut up badly. Cardiff's Millennium Stadium, the Blue Bulls' Loftus Versfeld and English clubs Gloucester, Bath, Worcester and Newcastle are all said to be paying close attention.

Hodgson's 40-metre penalty in the 43rd minute settled Saracens, who lost at London Irish last week, and they piled on the points thereafter, with hard driving into the tackle and quick support putting Stevens over in the 49th minute – Damien Welch won then lost a defensive line-out, and Vunipola's tidying up set Saracens away – followed by Vunipola on short gallops after 53 and 71 minutes.

Hodgson's three conversions helped make Steenson's 52nd-minute penalty and the short-range score by Rich Baxter near the end pretty inconsequential. There was a loud and rudely timed "Nessun Dorma" aria from what looked like a Viking in drag over the sound system during the final minute – that'll be the fat lady singing, then – and as with all of Saracens' innovations, you could take it or leave it, but not ignore it.

Saracens B Ransom (J Maddock, 71); J Short, J Tomkins, A Powell (N Mordt, 66), D Strettle; C Hodgson, N de Kock (R Wigglesworth, 50); M Vunipola (N Auterac, 71), J Smit (J George, 59), M Stevens (P du Plessis, 71), S Borthwick (capt), M Botha (A Hargreaves, 55), J Wray (J Melck, 66), E Joubert, W Fraser.

Exeter L Arscott (P Dollman, 66); J Nowell, I Whitten, J Shoemark, M Jess; G Steenson (I Mieres 58), W Chudley (H Thomas, 40); B Moon (C Rimmer, 58), N Clark (J Yeandle, 61), H Tui (A Brown, 66), D Mumm, D Welch (A Muldowney, 66; T Hayes, 75), R Baxter (capt), K Horstmann, J Scaysbrook.

Referee Martin Fox (Leicestershire).

Saracens

Tries: Hodgson, Stevens, Vunipola (2)

Cons: Hodgson (4)

Pen: Hodgson

Exeter Chiefs

Try: Baxter

Pens: Steenson (2)

News
Russell Brand was in typically combative form during his promotional interview with Newsnight's Evan Davis
peopleReports that Brand could stand for Mayor on an 'anti-politics' ticket
News
The clocks go forward an hour at 1am on Sunday 30 March
news
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor finds himself in a forest version of London in Doctor Who episode 'In the Forest of the Night'
TVReview: Is the Doctor ever going stop frowning? Apparently not.
Life and Style
Gap announced its same-store sales were down 6 per cent in August, and 3 per cent in September
fashionAlexander Fury explains where Gap is going wrong
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Isis with Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville)
TV
News
Voluminous silk drawers were worn by Queen Victoria
newsThe silk underwear is part of a growing trade in celebrity smalls
Sport
footballMatch report: Real fight back to ruin Argentinian's debut
News
Candidates with surnames that start with an A have an electoral advantage
newsVoters are biased towards names with letters near start of alphabet
Arts and Entertainment
Jay James
TVReview: Performances were stale and cheesier than a chunk of Blue Stilton left out for a month
News
Rainbow List
News
Bruce, left, with Cream bandmates Ginger Rogers, centre, and Eric Clapton in 1967
people
Sport
football
Arts and Entertainment
Cronenberg: 'Ageing is part of life. There is a beauty to it; you just have to find a way to grasp that beauty'
arts + ents
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?