Strettle trumps Henson hype with his own fancy footwork

Saracens 26 Harlequins 14
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The Independent Online

The big screen at Vicarage Road was dominated by a picture of Gavin Henson, accompanied by the slogan "Strictly No Dancing": the message being that when the celebrity centre from Wales finally consigns his sequins to the male make-up bag of history and embarks on his sporting future – quite probably at Wembley on Boxing Day, when Saracens meet Wasps in a Christmas derby – he will forget all about the cha-cha-cha and dedicate himself wholly to resurrecting a career that once looked dead and buried. It was understandable that Sarries should have started advertising the great event well in advance, but yesterday the words "Strictly No Rugby" would have been more appropriate.

To be sure, there was next to none of the stuff on view. The home side were responsible for what little there was, producing almost all of it during a first half in which they out-muscled Harlequins so comprehensively that a bonus-point victory appeared inevitable. Unfortunately for Saracens, not to mention the 6,000 or so hardy souls who spent a freezing 80 minutes in surroundings that have always been as cold as charity, the second half had about as much to recommend it as Ann Widdecombe murdering the rumba in a short skirt.

Conor O'Shea, the Quins director of rugby, told it how it was afterwards. "It wasn't pretty and it wasn't a good game," he acknowledged. "It died a slow death." In October, when the Irishman tried to pretend that the Quins-Bath fixture was something other than a complete lemon, he left the room to the sound of communal sniggering. If no one was laughing yesterday, it was because he called this one right.

Not that the afternoon was totally without salvation. For one thing, there was the walking cabaret act known as Joe Marler, the aggressive 20-year-old Harlequins prop with the Mohican hair-do. Here is a man capable of starting a fight with his own shaving mirror, such is the testosterone-fuelled nature of his approach. In the opening seconds, he fell out with the tough Namibian flanker Jacques Burger, which registered a maximum 10 on the Young Players' List of Stupid Ideas. He then succeeded in getting on the nerves of the Italian Test prop Carlos Nieto before annoying the former England captain Steve Borthwick to distraction for good measure.

Finally, he threw a couple of haymakers at the Scotland back-rower Kelly Brown, starting a prolonged bout of how's-your-father in the process. Unsurprisingly, he spent the last 15 minutes of the game on the touchline, nursing a bloodied nose. Marler was replaced by Ceri Jones, who had hair issues of his own. Hiawatha one minute, Seasick Steve the next? No sentient spectator could accuse the Harlequins front row of being uninteresting.

Owen Farrell was interesting for different, more legitimate reasons. Even younger than Marler – the lad is still in his teens – he took a significant step towards making the Saracens outside-half position his own with an intelligently constructed, accurately calibrated performance that marked him out as a genuine talent. Time and again, he turned the Harlequins wings with finely judged punts from open field, and when he moved the ball through the hands, he looked every bit as accomplished.

His contribution to Saracens' first try on 17 minutes was considerable: he showed great patience in orchestrating a long attack sparked by Schalk Brits and finished at the sticks by David Strettle, whose breaking of a Nick Evans tackle earlier in the move gave Farrell the front-foot opportunity he craved. If the youngster's impatience cost his side a second try 11 minutes later – he opted for a smart-Alec step inside when a simple pass would have suited far better – he made up for it with a goal-kicking display worthy of the 16 points it brought him.

Mark McCall, who is set to succeed Brendan Venter as director of rugby, refused to go overboard, but he could not resist uttering a supportive word or two. "Forwards want to be able to look back at their No 10 and see someone who's in control of the situation," he said. "I think Owen controlled things pretty well, as he did on his previous starts at Gloucester and Bath. Each time, he has brought an increased maturity to his performance."

Farrell has all the breeding and innate rugby intelligence he could need: his father Andy, one of the great folk heroes of British rugby league and, for a brief spell towards the back end of his career, an international centre in the union code, knows a thing or two about casting spells with an oval-shaped ball, and as a senior coach at Saracens, he is well placed to keep his offspring on the straight and narrow. All things considered, the young midfielder could not be better situated. He did not have a lot to do with Saracens' second try, which fell to the ever-enthusiastic Brits shortly before the interval after a mauling drive from a close-range line-out, but he did slot the conversion from a position wide on the right and also kicked a difficult right-sided penalty at the start of the final quarter to bolt the door on Quins, who had opened the scoring with what amounted to an interception score in the opening minutes. At this rate, McCall and his colleagues will soon be able to stop beating themselves up over the stand-off role and play the likes of Henson and Alex Goode in their best positions – centre in the case of the former and full-back in the case of the latter.

"If Owen keeps performing like this, it will be difficult not to pick him," admitted McCall. It will also be difficult for the Rugby Football Union to kick Saracens for their perceived lack of England-qualified players. Farrell, James Short, Noah Cato, Jamie George, Jackson Wray, George Kruis ... the St Albans academy is in full production. This game may have been a throwback to the Dark Ages, but there are some very bright lights on the horizon.

Scorers: Saracens: Tries Strettle, Brits; Conversions Farrell 2; Penalties Farrell 4. Harlequins: Try Lowe; Penalties Evans 3.

Saracens: C Wyles; D Strettle, M Tagicakibau, B Barritt, J Short; O Farrell, R Wigglesworth (N De Kock 52); D Carstens (R Gill 52), S Brits, C Nieto (P Du Plessis 52), S Borthwick (capt), M Botha (G Kruis 76), J Burger, A Saull (K Brown 52), E Joubert.

Harlequins: M Brown; T Williams, O Smith (G Camacho 31), J Turner-Hall, G Lowe; N Evans, K Dickson (D Care 48); J Marler (C Jones 65), J Gray (C Brooker 61), J Johnston (M Lambert 57), T Vallejos (O Kohn 57), G Robson, C Robshaw (capt), W Skinner (N Easter 48), T Guest.

Referee: A Small (London).

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