Chris Ashton, the try-starved England wing, is going all religious on us: not because he requires divine help to cope with the supersized Wales back division heading towards Twickenham for this weekend's Six Nations encounter, but because only the Almighty knows when he can next expect to find himself in possession.
"I'm saying a little prayer every night," the Northampton man said a few days ago. "This is killing me. When I came across from rugby league people warned me that I'd never get the ball. All I can do is stick with it, keep running some lines and hope the lads can get that last pass away."
When Ashton joins Saracens from Northampton next season, not a move entirely free of controversy, he may find himself bombarded with passes. It rather depends on whether the Premiership champions stick with the back-line configuration currently to be seen in England colours – Charlie Hodgson, Brad Barritt, the much talked-about Owen Farrell – or ask a footballer as imaginative as Alex Goode to run the attacking show. At Vicarage Road yesterday, they spread the ball far and wide so often that they might have been mistaken for Gloucester, and the full-back was the man at the heart of it. The sooner the national team comes up with a way of involving him, the brighter their chances will be come the home World Cup in 2015.
Not that Goode or his admirably bold and adventurous back-line colleagues reaped their just reward. Saracens fell to a close-range drop goal from Geordan Murphy, the Leicester captain, after a four-minute, 26-phase attack in overtime, and in so doing lost an unbeaten record in Watford stretching back to late October 2010.
Painful? Yes, and then some. But given the vast discrepancy in personnel – Leicester travelled in considerable strength, fielding the England candidates Toby Flood and Manu Tuilagi in their back division, while their hosts were forced to run second-string units both in midfield and in the back five of the pack – they will take more from the game in defeat thanthe Midlands did in victory. Immeasurably more.
"The whole landscape of English club rugby has changed," said the Leicester director of rugby, Richard Cockerill, "and Saracens are one of the clubs responsible." Cockerill readily agreed that as recently as two seasons ago, a Sarries side shorn of so many players through injury and representative calls – from Hodgson, Barritt, Farrell, David Strettle and Richard Wigglesworth out back to Steve Borthwick, Mouritz Botha, Kelly Brown, Jacques Burger and Ernst Joubert up front – would have expected to lose this fixture by plenty. "Now," he said, "they can compete with anyone, under any circumstances. What they do is very effective and I have a lot of time for them."
Easy to say in triumph, perhaps, but Cockerill is never less than a generous soul irrespective of the result. "It's just nice to be able to sit here on the right side of things for once," said the former England hooker. "I've had my share of crap press conferences this season, so to come in after a game we were losing with a few seconds left on the clock makes a welcome change. Even if we'd lost, and we could easily have done so, I think we recaptured something of what Leicester rugby is about following the disappointment at Exeter in the previous game. Geordan led a lot of that process through the week and I'm glad it was him who dropped the goal to win it."
If Murphy fired the bullet, Tuilagi was the man who loaded the gun with a thumping run out of defence in the final minute. Ben Spencer, on for the try-scoring scrum-half Neil de Kock, was the principal victim – his forlorn attempt to interrupt the progress of the human bowling ball ended with him flying through the air with the greatest of ease – and once in the clear, the Samoan-born centre poked a a kick down the left touchline so precise that the covering Goode had no option to sidefoot the ball to safety and concede the line-out. At that point, there was only a single measly second left on the clock. If Leicester had to be spot on with their throw-catch-delivery routine, there was far more to it than that. Time and again, they rumbled round the edges; once, Flood shaped to drop a goal himself but thought better of it when the fleet-footed flanker Andy Saull closed him down. Eventually, they set a ruck within a few feet of the Sarries line and left their scrum-half, James Grindal, with a choice. Should he flick the decisive pass to Flood, who had kicked pretty well from the tee, or to Murphy, not exactly renowned as a nailed-on marksman under pressure. He plumped for the counter-intuitive option and was proved right.
Mark McCall, the Saracens coach, described Tuilagi as "a handful" and he was not far wrong. If the centre expected to make a mess of a deeply unfamiliar Sarries back division, he was disabused of the notion in the tight first half during which he was enthusiastically corralled by Adam Powell and Chris Wyles. But after the break there were a couple of significant contributions: first, a stampede down the right, prompted by Flood's beautiful delayed pass to Anthony Allen, that led to Ed Slater's touchdown early in the final quarter; second, that desperate intervention at the last knockings.
"It was good to see Manu having a crack with 30 seconds to go," Cockerill said. "He's played two full lots of 80 minutes now, so he's obviously fit enough to come under England consideration after his recent injury problems. I'd say the same about Toby. England have two quality players there, ready to come in. While they've done well in the first two Six Nations games with the people they've had, this can only be good news." And how should they fit them in? "That," he replied, "is someone else's problem."
Saracens: Try De Kock; Conversion Goode; Penalties Goode 4. Leicester: Try Slater; Penalties Flood 4; Drop goal Murphy.
Saracens A Goode; D Taylor (M Tagicakibau, 54), C Wyles, A Powell, J Short; N Mordt (J Tomkins, 69), N De Kock (B Spencer, 54); J Smit (capt, R Gill, 43), S Brits, C Nieto (M Stevens, 43), G Kruis, H Smith (H Vyvyan, 42), J Melck (W Fraser, 54), A Saull, J Wray.
Leicester: G Murphy (capt); H Agulla, M Tuilagi, A Allen, M Smith; T Flood, J Grindal; M Ayerza, G Chuter, L Mulipola, E Slater, G Skivington, S Mafi, J Salvi (C Newby, 65), T Waldrom.
Referee: A Small (London).
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