Saracens flex their muscles in Brussels
Saracens 30 Racing Metro 13: Pool One leaders make themselves at home in Belgium to beat Racing
Home comforts are not all they are cracked up to be. Saracens' winning combination of the pragmatic and the peripatetic rolled on in Brussels with a second victory in two Heineken Cup pool matches and if their scrum had been a little more dominant in the first half and Racing Metro just a little less recalcitrant in the closing stages of a losing cause, the 'hosts' would have returned from their latest road trip with maximum points.
While Saracens await the rebuilding of their new stadium – Allianz Park in Mill Hill, north London – wherever they lay their scrumcap is their home. By the time the permanent move is made in late January they will have staged league and cup matches at Twickenham, Wembley, Brussels, Bedford, Watford and Milton Keynes. They have also made unsuccessful attempts to play Munster in New York in December and Edinburgh in Cape Town in the final Heineken Cup round the following month. Yesterday's opponents Racing, one of Paris's two top-flight clubs, are at it too. They hosted Munster – and beat them 22-17 – at Stade de France last weekend and will stage the return with Saracens in Nantes.
Sarries send their players on jollies to Miami, Munich and elsewhere and it all fits with a club not short of cash or of ideas. As they stated in the match programme here, "Saracens asks 'why not do it?' as opposed to 'why do it?'".
The Belgian Rugby Union, city council and ex-pats were enthusiastic partners to Saracens' wanderlust. The venture cost the club less, they said, than playing at Vicarage Road, where they lost last season's Heineken Cup quarter-final to Clermont Auvergne. Around 1,500 supporters followed them over (or under) the Channel, bolstering an 18,000 plus attendance at what was once the Heysel stadium.
Racing's former Bath fly-half Olly Barkley kicked the nominal visitors into the lead, and Charlie Hodgson replied in kind, before Saracens made it halfway to a bonus point with two tries in the second quarter. Schalk Brits had already been stretching Racing with his human pinball impression before he threw a lovely dummied pass and sidestepped inside to free Chris Wyles, arriving at pace on the hooker's shoulder, and the United States wing scored on his 100th appearance for Saracens. The conversion by Hodgson had Saracens 10-3 up and they doubled the lead when Steve Borthwick piled through Barkley's tackle and Hodgson converted.
Team-mates rushed from all over to congratulate Borthwick on the captain's third try in his fifth season with the club; a season that has seen one loss and one draw in eight matches. Barkley missed a penalty, Hodgson kicked one and with Racing's openside flanker Bernard Le Roux in the sin bin for flicking the ball from Neil de Kock's hands, Saracens were in a good state at the break.
Racing switched the footballing talent of Juan Martin Hernandez from full-back to fly-half in the second half, with Barkley withdrawn. Several of the Racing players probably finished with impressive figures for 'metres carried' but pretty though these runs were, Saracens' snappier, direct style was more effective.
Among the four England candidates among Sarries' outside backs, Chris Ashton was busy doing some effective sweeping, and Brad Barritt turned in his customary stint of glueing the defence together and moving Saracens forward when Hodgson chose to pass short.
Still, the third quarter passed with a third Hodgson penalty as the only score. And when, in the 62nd minute, Masi Matadigo got free on the right and Hernandez's sweet overhead pass made a try for the Argentine wing Juan Imhoff that Fabrice Estebanez converted, Saracens found themselves edging towards a frustrating finish. All the more so when Borthwick stole a Racing line-out close to the Parisians' goalline but the chance was lost in a midfield knock-on.
Hodgson reignited Saracens in the gathering dusk with a clever, crabbing run to fix Estebanez and make a gap for the flanker Will Fraser to run in Saracens' third try, that Hodgson converted with four minutes remaining. Having begun with a bonus point in a genuine away match – their five-try, 45-0 rout of Edinburgh last weekend – the lack of a fourth try here was a long way from being a worry for Saracens. They lead Pool One comfortably, although things will be a great deal clearer after they take on Munster in Limerick and Watford in December. "The players were excited to play here – it was like our first time at Wembley – and we had Racing chasing shadows at times," said Mark McCall, Saracens' director of rugby. "We are in control of the group."
Saracens A Goode; C Ashton, O Farrell (J Tomkins, 69), B Barritt, C Wyles (D Strettle, 59); C Hodgson, N de Kock (R Wigglesworth, 51); R Gill (M Vunipola, 40), S Brits (J Smit, 55), M Stevens (C Nieto, 60), S Borthwick (capt), M Botha (A Hargreaves, 53), K Brown (A Saull, 64), J Wray, W Fraser.
Racing Metro J M Hernandez; B Fall (J Jane, 60), M Bergamasco, F Estebanez, J Imhoff; O Barkley (G Germain, 40), M Machenaud; A lo Cicero (E Ben Arous, 49), D Szarzewski (B Noirot, 57), L Ducalcon (J P Orlandi, 63), K Ghezal, F van der Merwe (F Metz, 50), A Battut, J Cronje (capt), B le Roux (M Matadigo, 51).
Referee Nigel Owens.
Tries: Wyles, Borthwick, Fraser
Cons: Hodgson 3
Pens: Hodgson 3
Pens: Barkley, Germain
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