Saracens' boys from the High Veld give Bath the lowdown
Batth 11 Saracens 12: Premiership leaders play on defensive strengths against West Country side short of firepower
Sunday 01 November 2009
After years of accusations that they were under-achieving, Saracens are now being castigated for reaching the top of the Premiership with an unattractive style of play. They just can't win – unless you count the seven victories in a spin which have taken them to the summit.
It is way off Newcastle's record-breaking start of a dozen matches in 1997, but it is the kind of sequence Saracens' South African backers must have dreamed of after a year of much recruitment, mostly from the High Veld or the lowlands of Natal and almost all of it proving extremely judicious. "There are moments when the mouth waters and I look forward to the day we can become as good an attacking side as we are when we defend," said Brendan Venter, Saracens' director of rugby. "The magic is in these players but it's still a good time to be a Sarries supporter."
Oh if only the denizens of the Rec could say the same thing. Whereas Saracens had lost only Steve Borthwick to a rest ahead of England's Test with Australia – the club and national captain spent a relaxing afternoon here in T-shirt and jeans, chatting with old friends from his 10 years as a Bath player – the home side were missing two tighthead props in Davey Wilson and Duncan Bell and the wing Matt Banahan. That was about 50-plus stones of prime beef which would have been very handy against Saracens' iron defence.
Mind you, it was nimble cleverness with short inside passes which almost did the trick in a suffocating first half. The trouble was Bath – above only Leeds in the table and denuded of quality personnel by the drugs-related departures in the summer even before England came calling – were clearly lacking in the confidence to back themselves. Their luck was out, too: Nick Abendanon pulled out at the last minute with a hamstring twinge, and Ben Skirving limped off after 15 minutes. Add in the midfield injuries to Butch James and Olly Barkley and the Rec crew do not have their troubles to seek.
There were boos for the coach Steve Meehan after last week's defeat here by Newcastle, and groans when Ryan Davis and Tom Cheeseman kicked averagely yesterday, but a second-half comeback of sorts enabled Meehan to say: "We're a lot happier with the effort and the attitude."
But it was Saracens' domination before the interval which left the lasting impression. A stunning break by Schalk Brits and linking pass by Brad Barritt made a fine try for the flanker Andy Saull after three minutes. Davis kicked a penalty for Bath but they fell into a temporary torpor. At a Bath line-out 30 metres from the Saracens line, Peter Short caught the throw safely but Ernst Joubert, the visitors' No 8, pinched the ball in the ensuing pile-up. Joubert is vying for the tag of the highest-quality South African arrival in Hertfordshire and it is a tough contest with the raging gazelle Brits and dog of a flanker Wikus van Heerden around. "Naturally courageous," Venter called Van Heerden, admiringly.
With 37 minutes gone Bath ground to a halt behind a ruck and Davis tried a hopeful punt. The chase was lacklustre and Noah Cato launched a scything riposte. After making good ground he passed to Alex Goode who was being held by Cheeseman, who duly went to the sin bin. One man down, Bath were quickly outmanoeuvred. Despite missing a possible overlap Saracens built momentum with a run by Brits, a neat flick by Goode and Cato's finish past a couple of weak tackles for 12-3.
Jack Cuthbert took over the kicking and trimmed the lead to 12-6 four minutes into the second half. Then Danny Grewcock stopped scrapping and started grafting, and he and Julian Salvi helped pull Bath's metaphorical socks up. Jackson and Cuthbert missed a penalty each, then Dave Flatman led a scrummaging surge which repelled Sarries when Bath's heels were scraping on their own goal line. There was gamesmanship, too, when Bath's captain Michael Claassens suckered Saracens' prop Rhys Gill into the softest of yellow cards, while taking a quick tap. The penalty went to touch and after a prolonged maul Claassens dummied past another prop Richard Skuse for a try with 10 minutes left.
The conversion by Davis was missed and Bath never really threatened a winning score. The last of many thumping tackles by Barritt, who had a wonderful battle with Shontayne Hape within the war, sealed only a second Saracens win on this ground since 2001.
Bath N Abendanon; J Cuthbert, M Carraro, S Hape, M Stephenson; R Davis, M Claassens (capt); D Flatman (D Barnes, 60), P Dixon, A Jarvis (M Lilley, 67), P Short, D Grewcock, S Hooper, B Skirving (J Faamatuainu, 15), J Salvi.
Saracens A Goode; N Cato, K Ratuvou, B Barritt, C Wyles; G Jackson, N de Kock; M Aguero (R Gill, 55), S Brits (F Ongaro, 67), C Nieto (R Skuse, 52), H Vyvyan (J Melck, 56), M Botha (T Ryder, 52), W van Heerden (capt), E Joubert, A Saull (Aguero, 72-77).
Referee: C White (Gloucestershire)
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