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)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
From Mean Girls to Mamet: Lindsay Lohan
theatre
Sport
Nathaniel Clyne (No 2) drives home his side's second goal past Arsenal’s David Ospina at the Emirates
footballArsenal 1 Southampton 2: Arsène Wenger pays the price for picking reserve side in Capital One Cup
News
Mike Tyson has led an appalling and sad life, but are we not a country that gives second chances?
peopleFormer boxer 'watched over' crash victim until ambulance arrived
Arts and Entertainment
Geena Davis, founder and chair of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media
tv
News
i100
Travel
travelGallery And yes, it is indoors
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
The Tiger Who Came To Tea
booksJudith Kerr on what inspired her latest animal intruder - 'The Crocodile Under the Bed'
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
film
News
Alan Bennett criticised the lack of fairness in British society encapsulated by the private school system
peopleBut he does like Stewart Lee
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

Syria air strikes: ‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings

Robert Fisk on Syria air strikes

‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings
Will Lindsay Lohan's West End debut be a turnaround moment for her career?

Lindsay Lohan's West End debut

Will this be a turnaround moment for her career?
'The Crocodile Under the Bed': Judith Kerr's follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

The follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

Judith Kerr on what inspired her latest animal intruder - 'The Crocodile Under the Bed' - which has taken 46 years to get into print
BBC Television Centre: A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past

BBC Television Centre

A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past
Lonesome George: Custody battle in Galapagos over tortoise remains

My George!

Custody battle in Galapagos over tortoise remains
10 best rucksacks for backpackers

Pack up your troubles: 10 best rucksacks for backpackers

Off on an intrepid trip? Experts from student trip specialists Real Gap and Quest Overseas recommend luggage for travellers on the move
Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world