Saracens stay in hunt for magnificent seven

Saracens 21 Leeds 15
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England captain Steve Borthwick reported unscathed for squad duty last night, having led Saracens back to the top of the Guinness Premiership with a hard-fought win over Leeds.

The lock forward entrusted by England manager Martin Johnson to continue wearing the captain's armband will be hoping his club-mates produce a better performance in Bath on Saturday, as they chase a magnificent seven straight league wins.

But now he must switch his focus to the national squad, which he acknowledged has been hit hard by injuries.

He said: "We have injuries and I don't know the severity yet. But the challenge is to build the strongest England team we can in a short time.

"This will be where the squad is tested because we can't be worrying about who isn't available, it's now all about fielding a side to deal with three incredibly difficult Test matches."

On the home front, his Saracens will care little for critics who continue to observe that while they succeed, they don't excite. Perhaps you can understand such a pragmatic attitude given their multi-million pound expenditure on global superstars since rugby union went open in 1995, and the miserable return of one trophy from a Twickenham final in 1998.

Saracens are the only Premiership side boasting a 100 per cent record, but made hard work of seeing off a Leeds side buried deep under a pile of 11 rival clubs, and already requiring a miracle to avoid returning from whence they came last season.

With better fortune, and an injection of confidence, Leeds could have caused a serious upset during the spells when their work-rate, and Saracens' rash of careless technical errors, led to openings.

Rugby director Brendan Venter summed it up when he admitted: "We were really poor out there. We made it harder work than it should have been. We had opportunies in the first half that we butchered.

"I'll take responsibility for our lack of continuity because I am rotating the squad, so that when the injuries come, and they will, we'll all be ready to slot in when required."

Venter was less than impressed with scrum-half Justin Marshall, who started the game despite struggling with a calf injury. Marshall was replaced by Neil De Kock after only 27 minutes.

Glen Jackson and Ceiron Thomas exchanged penalties to make it 6-6, and Saracens finally broke the deadlock on the stroke of half-time. Leeds fullback Leigh Hinton scorned the chances to kick possession dead with time expired and cost his team a try.

Schalk Brits broke through the middle, releasing Kameli Ratuvou, who dummied to pass to Chris Wyles and then smashed through Richard Welding's tackle to score, but Jackson's conversion sailed wide.

Leeds reduced the deficit to two points when Thomas kicked his third successful penalty two minutes after the re-start, only for Saracens to score their second try off a twice-taken penalty.

Referee Rose decided Leeds were not 10 yards back when Jackson made his first tap and go, and when Saracens won the resultant lineout, three passes allowed Ratuvou to again crash through the defence on the left of the posts, Jackson converting this time.

Another Thomas penalty kept Leeds in touch, and a last-minute drop-goal made sure they took home at least a bonus point.

Saracens: Tries Ratuvou 2; Conversion Jackson; Penalties Jackson 2, Hougaard. Leeds: Penalties Thomas 4; Drop goal Thomas.

Saracens: A Goode; N Cato, K Ratuvou, B Barritt, C Wyles; G Jackson (Hougaard, 58), J Marshall (De Kock, 27); R Gill (Aguero, 51), S Brits (Reynecke, 63), C Nieto (Skuse, 51), S Borthwick (c), M Botha, W van Heerden (Vyvyan, 58), A Saull (Melck, 68), E Joubert.

Leeds: L Hinton (Paul, 72); R Welding, S Rabeni, S Barrow, L Blackett; C Thomas, A Gomarsall (Mathie, 56); T McGee (Hardy, 53), P Nilsen (Ma'asi, 53), J Gomez (Swainston, 68), P Murphy (Lund, 56), M Wentzel (c), K Myall (Clark, 61), H Fourie, A To'oala.

Referee: D Rose (Midlands).