Saracens 44 Newcastle 14: Ratuvou states Saracens' potential as title challengers

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The Independent Online

The crowd were on their feet after 35 minutes, not because they were toasting some champagne rugby from Saracens - that came later, thank the lord - but because Richard Hill, one of the best two or three players ever to represent the nomadic north Londoners, could be seen limping along the dead-ball line on his one good leg. It says something about the direction in which professional rugby is being currently being driven that a beaten-up flanker in a suit and tie should provide the highlight of the opening half.

Saracens were in complete control as Hill emerged into the clear light of day after some corporate schmoozing partly because they showed a clearer understanding than most of how to pick a way through the minefield of the Experimental Law Variations, and partly because Newcastle were spellbindingly dire.

Yet they had only three penalties to show for their superiority and the visitors were still in the game. Happily for Eddie Jones' team, Glen Jackson popped over a drop goal just as Hill was treating the adoring masses to a last regal wave. Such is the power of greatness.

A fourth penalty with the final kick of the period put Saracens more than two scores ahead and while the interval whistle came as a blessed relief, there was far more to enjoy after the restart, much of it from Kameli Ratuvou. Jones, the Saracens coach, believes the Fijian has it in him to be the best wing in the Premiership, and Ratuvou's work early in the second half suggested he might be right.

First, Ratuvou stampeded away from a ruck in midfield, only to be dragged down a foot short by Jonny Wilkinson. Then, he charged down Tom May's attempted clearance to claim the first try of the contest before gathering Jackson's ambitious cross-kick in his own 22, beating Ollie Phillips with the daintiest of kicks - no mean feat for an individual boasting a pair of tree trunks where other people have legs - and feeding Kevin Sorrell for the score of the day.

Suddenly, Saracens were 25-0 up and looking perfectly capable of doubling the advantage. As it turned out, they finished six points short of the 50 and allowed Newcastle two soft tries, one of them from the ever-willing Wilkinson, at the last knockings - a loosening of the grip that disappointed Jones, who, despite all that back-slapping Australian bonhomie of his, is not the sort to take disappointment lying down.

But it was a strong performance nonetheless, one that gave Saracens the look and feel of a potential title challenger rather than a perennial bum of the month. They hurt Newcastle at the set-piece - peculiarly, the Falcons' scrum was at its most convincing when both Phil Dowson and Ed Williamson were banged up in the cooler and the pack had to operate at 75 per cent capacity - and fairly slaughtered them at the line-out, where Steve Borthwick had himself a party.

They were also willing to attack from deep off turnover ball as when Neil de Kock ran long down the right, slowed to draw Wilkinson and May, and then sent Rodd Penney over with the cleverest of inside flicks.

Steve Bates, the Newcastle coach, was more concerned about his side's ho-hum performance in the first half than with the Saracens points-fest in the second, and you could see his logic. Then he said to his audience: "I don't share your pessimism about us as a team." At which point, the logic evaporated.

Saracens: Tries Ratuvou, Sorrell, Vyvyan, Penney, Ross; Conversions Jackson, Ross; Penalties Jackson 4; Drop goal Jackson. Newcastle: Tries Wilkinson, May; Conversions Wilkinson 2.

Saracens: R Haughton (C Wyles, 62); R Penney, K Sorrell, A Powell, K Ratuvou; G Jackson (G Ross, 68), N De Kock (M Rauluni, 68); M Aguero, F Ongaro (M Cairns, 49), C Johnston (C Visagie, 62), S Borthwick (capt), H Vyvyan (K Chesney, 62), C Jack, A Saull (B Skirving, 50), M Owen.

Newcastle: A Tait (O Phillips, 16); T May, J Noon, S Davey, J Rudd; J Wilkinson, J Grindal (H Charlton, 62); M Ward (J Golding, 49), A Long (M Thompson, 50), C Hayman, A Perry (A Buist, 45, Balding, 71-74), M Sorenson, A Balding (T Swinson, 50), E Williamson, P Dowson (capt).

Referee: D Richards (Berkshire).