There is winning ugly, and there is winning like a team of Gorgons. Saracens' victory over a hapless London Irish yesterday fell squarely into the second of those categories – in a game grotesquely distorted by basic handling errors and numbskulled decision-making from both sides, there could have been no complaints from anyone had the final scoreline been the other way round – but they ended the day second in the Premiership, which was better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.
Brendan Venter, their director of rugby, leaves for his native South Africa today, having taken the difficult decision to return home for family reasons and recast himself as a technical specialist, using a range of modern gadgets and gizmos that will obliterate distance and minimise the need for the personal touch. A six-penalty lemon of a game was not quite the send-off he craved, but as four of those penalties fell to his own side, his farewells were cheery enough.
He even thanked the media, bless him. "The one thing I can't say is that I've been misquoted," he remarked, rather brilliantly. Given that the World Cup-winning Springbok has been submerged in disciplinary hot water for most of his stay here, generally for the heinous crime of telling the truth in public, it was among the more memorable one-liners of the age.
Sadly for his opposite number yesterday, no one could quite remember the last time London Irish won a game. "All five of the board have just been to see me," said Toby Booth, "and they were very supportive. I hope it wasn't the dreaded two-week vote of confidence." If the Exiles have any sense, they will hang on to Booth for all they are worth. No one in the English club game gives more of himself to the tactician's role. Not even Venter, who has never given less than everything.
Saracens expect their philosopher king to return to the club at least once a month and sometimes twice. He will hope to watch better fare than this when he next sets foot in the home counties. "We're a better side than we were at the end of the last season: then, there were no curve balls being thrown at us; now, we're riding injuries to important players as we go along," Venter said, sticking to his optimistic line, but yesterday's error-count was so high, it is impossible to imagine that he was entirely happy.
As usual, the Namibian flanker Jacques Burger was at the heart of the Saracens effort, and it was his wrap-up tackle on Topsy Ojo, played into trouble by Chris Malone in his own 22, that presented Owen Farrell with his fourth and final penalty. Six points adrift, the Exiles pushed hard for the score that would have ended their nine-match run of misery, but when their hooker James Buckland coughed up the ball in contact eight metres out – Jamie George, his opposite number, was the man credited with the all-important tackle – that hope faded away on the wintry breeze.
Booth now faces two thankless tasks of the Heineken Cup variety, against Ospreys and Munster, both of whom have a continuing interest in Europe, unlike the Exiles. Respite? There ain't none. "What we won't do is change the way we play," he insisted. "Toulouse don't change when they're on a bad run, do they? If energy and intensity are the important currencies, we've shown far more of both just recently. We're miles better than we were."
All the same, he would be less than human if he didn't envy Venter his ticket to Cape Town.
Saracens: Penalties Farrell 4. London Irish: Penalties Malone 2.
Saracens A Goode; D Strettle, M Tagicakibau, B Barritt (G Henson, 78), J Short; O Farrell, R Wigglesworth; D Carstens (R Gill, 51), S Brits (J George, 70), C Nieto (P Du Plessis 63), S Borthwick (capt), M Botha (H Vyvyan, 51), J Burger, A Saull, K Brown (E Joubert, 63).
London Irish C Malone; T Ojo, E Seveali'i, S Mapusua, S Tagicakibau; D Bowden (R Lamb, 66), P Hodgson (capt, D Allinson, 63); A Corbisiero (C Dermody, 70), J Buckland, F Rautenbach (P Ion, 63), N Kennedy, M Garvey, R Thorpe (C Hala'ufia, 63), S Armitage, G Stowers.
Referee D Rose (Devon).Reuse content