Just a touch of frustration to taint a victory for Saracens that kept them up where most people believe they belong, comfortably in the Premiership play-off positions. Attacking with a series of penalties in the final few minutes, they tried line-out catch-and-drives, then scrummaging on the 22-metre line, without being able to find a fourth try for a bonus point. Instead, it was Gloucester who were afforded that luxury, in defeat, as James Hook's brilliant foray made a score for lock Tom Savage.
It may be early to be pondering play-offs next May, but the Premiership programme is a quarter of the way over now, and Sarries, Northampton and Bath are well established as likely semi-finalists. Gloucester would love to complete the quartet, and justify their summer outlay on new players and coaches. By building a 13-3 lead in 19 minutes, with two penalties from Greig Laidlaw and the scrum-half's conversion of Rob Cook's try, they appeared capable of adding further discomfort to that suffered by Saracens at Bath last weekend.
Saracens also lost Schalk Brits to injury in that early period – the Springbok hooker returned from a few weeks kicking his heels as a reserve in the Rugby Championship only to have his ribs clattered in a tackle by Matt Kvesic. But Gloucester are not yet a 40-minute team, never mind an 80-minute one, and soon after Cook had punished a lapse by Chris Ashton, flying out of the defensive line, Saracens rapidly regathered themselves.
Billy Twelvetrees had set Cook away to brush past Ben Ransom by spotting Ashton's move and flinging out a lovely pass. In Gloucester's very next attack, though, Twelvetrees may have thought, "That went well, I'll try this," as he attempted a soft chip over the first line of Saracens cover instead of passing to a well-stocked line outside him.
Chris Wyles charged the kick down and ran 50 metres for a try converted by Charlie Hodgson. Four minutes later Saracens, for the third time already in the match, kicked a penalty for touch instead of goal, and though the line-out was overthrown, Gloucester helped them out when Hook kicked the ball away. A series of Sarries drives ended with Alistair Hargreaves scoring at the corner, and the home team were 15-13 up.
Bath disrupted Saracens last weekend by using double tackles – it's a way for little men to cut down Goliaths – but Brad Barritt missed that match with a calf injury, and no one does more to supply the mortar in a defensive brick wall. Hodgson's penalty, replied to by Laidlaw, made it 18-16, but as time wore on Barritt helped force Gloucester into error after error.
"I'd have Brad on my international team every day of the week," said Mark McCall, Saracens' director of rugby. "People underestimate him and think he's a one-trick pony but there's much more to his game, and without question he's the most competitive person that I've come across. It was important we didn't overreact, or underreact, to what happened at Bath. These six Premiership games looked pretty daunting before the start, so to have five wins from them, we're pleased."
Also pleasing was how the referee, Dean Richards, refused to show a yellow card for two marginal tackles which so far this season have been heavily punished. There was a yellow card for Gloucester's Nick Wood, though, for tugging Alex Goode off the ball, and with a one-man advantage Saracens fashioned a galloping try for Ashton, on the shoulder of a break by his captain, Hargreaves. In the preamble Richards judged what may have been a knock-on by Billy Vunipola to be a brilliant stooping pick-up. Elsewhere, Vunipola's energetic battering of the gain-line made him more effective than his England rival in Gloucester red, Ben Morgan.
With the powerful Clermont Auvergne here next for Saturday's European Champions Cup tie, Saracens may fret that their pack were unable to find that fourth try. Gloucester, however, are at a different stage of development.
"People talk about turning points, and the charge-down [of Twelvetrees] was a big one," said David Humphreys, their director of rugby. "Saracens know what it takes to win games; we're working towards it."
Saracens: B Ransom (A Goode, 52); C Ashton, C Wyles, B Barritt (M Bosch, 69), D Strettle; C Hodgson, R Wigglesworth (N de Kock, 51); R Barrington (R Gill, 51), S Brits (J George, 8), K Longbottom (J Johnston, 51), J Hamilton (G Kruis, 59), A Hargreaves (capt), E Joubert, K Brown (W Fraser, 50), B Vunipola.
Gloucester: R Cook; C Sharples, H Purdy (M Atkinson, 69), B Twelvetrees (capt), J May; J Hook, G Laidlaw (D Robson, 71); N Wood (Y Thomas, 67), R Hibbard (D Dawidiuk, 57), J Afoa (S Puafisi, 71), T Savage, T Palmer (E Stooke, 65), S Kalamafoni (R Moriarty, 66), M Kvesic (Thomas, 66-67), B Morgan.
Referee: D Richards.Reuse content