There is not much love around the English club game right now: hard words are being spoken on the vexed subject of European rugby – Nigel Wray, the Saracens chairman, poured an entire pipeline’s worth of petrol on the flames consuming the Heineken Cup on Sunday by declaring that the Premiership teams would be “quite crazy” to stay in the tournament beyond the end of the season – and even harder lessons are being learnt by sides who let their discipline slip. Ask Gloucester, who really copped it in London yesterday and find themselves at the foot of the table as a consequence.
Charged with the not inconsiderable task of righting a long list of opening-day wrongs by becoming the first team to beat Saracens in a regular-season game on the artificial turf at Allianz Park, the West Countrymen were full of bristling intent for the first minute - and spent the next 79 minutes paying for their pumped-uppedness. Nick Wood, nobody's idea of a serial front-row criminal, had two attempts at rucking the flanker Jacques Burger out of a ruck, made contact with the Namibian's scalp on the second dig and was promptly sent off by the international referee Wayne Barnes.
“Nick is in bits in the dressing room,” said Nigel Davies, the Gloucester rugby director, when asked the obvious question. If truth be told, Wood was in pieces long before he returned to the inner sanctum. Following the flourishing of the red card, he apologised to the prone Burger, made his way slowly to the bench with an expression of purest misery on his face and spent the next few minutes staring downwards, head in hands.
Only when his club-mate Akapusi Qera materialised next to him midway through the first quarter - the Fijian flanker had been sacrificed on the altar of necessity because the visitors needed Dan Murphy on the field to fill the hole in their front row - did the guilty man look up. Cue another apology, to Qera, which was every bit as heartfelt as the first. “Nick's a good guy,” Davies continued. “I saw the incident on the big screen like everyone else and it didn't look good, but we all make mistakes.”
Strange to relate, the boss was a whole lot happier with the way his side played with 14 men than he had been when a full 15-man complement disappeared down the tubes against Sale in the opening round of league games. (It is worth pointing out at this juncture that Wood was by no means blameless in that first fixture, having spent time in the sin bin for a technical offence. The England Saxons prop is not having a great time of it just at the moment, to say the very least.)
“I thought the way we went about our business here, where it was always going to be tough for us anyway, was better than in the Sale match,” Davies argued, “and while we're not exactly where we want to be in terms of the table, I think it's difficult to make a judgement on where we are as a team on the evidence of this scoreline. Under such circumstances, an accurate reflection is impossible.”
Yet this much is crystal clear: unless Gloucester make a sharp improvement at the sharp end - that is to say, in the tight-five department - they will be eaten alive by the likes of Northampton and Leicester, who are every bit as powerful up front as Saracens; the home side were able to bring such renowned international grunt-and-groaners as Mako Vunipola, Schalk Brits, James Johnston and Mouritz Botha off the bench.
During the close season, the Cherry and Whites were linked with the highly rated young Welsh prop Samson Lee, but if their interest was even remotely serious - the club distanced themselves from the story at an early stage - nothing came of it. On this showing, though, the Scarlets tight head would have made all the difference: a Samson in a front row of Delilahs.
While Saracens made heavy weather of capitalising on their superior physicality at close quarters, accentuated by the numerical advantage arising from Wood's unusually early departure, the force with which they were able to propel their driving mauls in a staccato, error-strewn opening half indicated that the traffic after the interval would be of the one-way variety. And so it proved: the former champions went from 12-10 down at the break to 30-12 up in the space of 17 minutes.
With the Lions prop Matt Stevens, supposedly retired from international rugby, making turnover plays by the dozen and Billy Vunipola, the hot-shot signing in the back row, splattering first-up tacklers all over the capital, the wits and wizards in the Gloucester back division - Freddie Burns and Henry Trinder, James Simpson-Daniel and the excellent Rob Cook - found themselves in high-speed retreat. Burns, who had kicked quite beautifully in unhelpful conditions in the opening 40, did not have so much as a single shot at the sticks in the second stanza.
Owen Farrell, less eye-catching than his England rival Burns and nowhere near as accurate from the tee, nudged Saracens ahead with a penalty before the unheralded centre Duncan Taylor, who had played a significant part in Joel Tomkins' early try, cut another geometer's angle to open up a route to the line for David Strettle. Thereafter, the points came thick and fast: route-one finishes for Brits and the younger of the Vunipola brothers; a kick-and-chase score for the ever-willing Strettle at the death.
It may well be that the Newcastle rugby director Dean Richards, that great connoisseur of rugby as trench warfare, was right to suggest that there are now two Premierships in one: the first restricted to Saracens, Leicester and Northampton with all their muscle and tonnage; the second open to everyone else.
“Can we match the big teams up front?” mused Davies when asked about the tight-five differential. “That's the challenge, definitely. Mind you, I'd be a lot more confident of doing it if we could keep eight forwards on the pitch.”
Scorers: Saracens: Tries Strettle 2, Tomkins, Brits, B Vunipola; Conversions Farrell 4, Spencer; Penalties Farrell 3. Gloucester: Penalties Burns 4.
Saracens: C Wyles; C Ashton, J Tomkins, D Taylor (B Ransom 71), D Strettle; O Farrell, R Wigglesworth (B Spencer 71); R Gill (M Vunipola 12-16 and 45), J George (S Brits 54), M Stevens (J Johnston 54), S Borthwick (capt), A Hargreaves (M Botha 54), B Vunipola, J Burger, E Joubert (J Wray 72).
Gloucester: R Cook (M Thomas 59); C Sharples, H Trinder (M Tindall 65), W Twelvetrees, J Simpson-Daniel; F Burns (Cook 72), T Knoyle (J Cowan 59); N Wood, D Dawidiuk (K Britton 59), R Harden (Y Thomas 53), T Savage (capt), L Lokotui (E Stooke 53), M Kvesic, A Qera (D Murphy 6), S Kalamafoni (B Morgan 66).
Referee: W Barnes (London).
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