As Saracens fly off to New York today for one of their famous mid-season breaks they are comfortably positioned as both the Premiership’s jetsetters and pacesetters. This five-try win over a Harlequins side depleted by choice and by injuries in front of a world record crowd for a club match was a superb way to kick off the run-in to the season that annually develops that scintillating extra frisson as soon as the Six Nations Championship is out of the way.
Whereas Quins gave a rest to three of their four current England players – Danny Care went off to be best man at his brothers’ wedding, Mike Brown sought some sun in Dubai and Chris Robshaw kept his plans to himself – Saracens recaptured top place in the league with Owen Farrell straight back in the front line. The feisty fly-half actually missed a goal-kick – it was after Jacques Burger’s bonus-point try in the 58th minute and it drew a gasp of disbelief among the 83,889 spectators whose numbers exceeded by 128 the record set by this fixture two years ago – and overcooked one touch-finder on the pristine but unyielding Wembley turf. Otherwise Farrell shared on the overall subjugation by gobbling up a crucial interception try just before half-time as he embellished a remarkable record of success against Saracens’ London rivals. Of the last 10 meetings, Saracens have won nine, and Farrell, still aged just 22, has played the eight most recent of them, accumulating 123 of his club’s 186 points in that period.
If there was a black mark for Sarries it was the clattering swinging arm to the head by Quins’ flanker Maurie Fa’asavalu that ended Dave Strettle’s involvement after only five minutes. Strettle was being pitched forward in a tackle as Fa'asavalu arrived and the television match official Sean Davey decided the Saracen had “ducked into” the challenge with no need for the referee Tim Wigglesworth to take further action. Later on, an off the ball slap involving Saracens’ scrum-half Richard Wigglesworth (no relation) was reviewed, and led to a reversed penalty. Strettle received eight minutes’ treatment and was taken off on a stretcher but was soon up and about. Mark McCall, Saracens’ director of rugby, had no critical comment to make about Fa’asavalu, saying he “hadn’t seen the [TV] angle everyone is talking about.” McCall’s Harlequins counterpart Conor O’Shea also brushed it off.
One wonders what any non-rugby aficionados here – and there must be plenty taking the rare chance of a Wembley ticket, with prices from £7.50 for children up to £60 – made of that or the other no-arms and late tackles that littered the play. Otherwise the sunny spectacle served up by the champions of 2011 hosting the ones from 2012 was decent. It was boosted by the rush of excitement of Saracens’ first interception try, carried from their 22-metre line for Chris Ashton, complete with ‘splash’ finish, after Quins’ Nick Easter, captain in Robshaw’s absence, tossed a careless overhead pass. Ashton, like his fellow wing Strettle, has disappeared from England sight of late but he revelled in his gallop across football’s national stadium. With Farrell’s conversion, Saracens led 7-0 after nine minutes’ play not including the Strettle hiatus.
Nick Evans and Farrell kicked a penalty each for 10-3, and Quins – who might be regarded as holding things together well considering they lost Ben Botica and Tom Williams as last-minute withdrawals, and Joe Gray and Joe Trayfoot during the match – responded to George Kruis’s try-scoring canter past Nick Kennedy in the 29th minute with a show-and-go snipe by Karl Dickson much in the manner of Care to score two minutes later. But Farrell’s penalty and conversion of his own try picking off Evans’s monstrously optimistic miss-pass in the Harlequins 22 made it 27-10 by the interval. It was a misrepresentation, maybe, of the balance of play but Saracens, who will doubtless engage in their own squad rotation against Wasps next weekend – they arrive back from New York on a jetlag-defying daytime flight on Wednesday, and are planning stringently for their Heineken Cup quarter-final in Ulster on Saturday week – could not care less.
The gloriously promising talents of Kruis were showcased again in the Burger try. Sam Smith’s smart short-side try for Quins off a line-out move while Kruis’s second-row colleague Steve Borthwick was in the sin bin for Saracens had been converted by Evans, four minutes into the second half. But Quins ignored a goal kick even when any kind of points here would have been handy in their pursuit of a play-off spot, made nothing from a penalty put into touch and were still 10 points adrift when Borthwick returned.
That was the cue for a very neat front-of-the-line-out ploy between Kruis and Shalk Brits, with the latter going on to sidestep Smith’s tackle and send the supporting Burger over. Marcelo Bosch’s jinking finish in the 80th minute converted by Farrell’s replacement Charlie Hodgson was aptly emphatic.
Saracens: A Goode; C Ashton, M Bosch, B Barritt, D Strettle (D Taylor, 6); O Farrell (C Hodgson, 64), R Wigglesworth (N de Kock, 50); M Vunipola (R Barrington, 61), S Brits (J George, 61), J Johnston (M Stevens, 50), S Borthwick (capt), G Kruis (M Botha, 72), J Wray (K Brown, 61), J Burger, E Joubert.
Harlequins: O Lindsay-Hague; S Smith, M Hopper, T Casson, U Monye; N Evans, K Dickson (S Stuart, 74), J Marler (M Lambert, 62), J Gray (D Ward, 42), K Sinckler (P Doran-Jones, 62), N Kennedy (J Trayfoot, 60; J Turner-Hall, 74), G Robson, M Fa’asavalu (T Guest, 60), L Wallace, N Easter (capt).
Referee: T Wigglesworth (Yorkshire).