If there were shades here of the Six Nations game on the far side of the Irish Sea eight days ago – one team booting the ball in the air, the other team failing to catch it – there were also glimpses of England’s medium-term future, with eye-catching displays from the wondrously athletic Saracens prodigy Maro Itoje, who looks every inch a 50-cap Test forward, and his close-quarter colleague, the hooker Jamie George, whose lowly place in the current red-rose standings is a mystery that passeth all understanding.
What is more, there were a couple of tries from Wasps – a barely comprehensible finish in the tightest of spaces by the wing Christian Wade; a thrilling, Ieaun Evans-like diagonal run to the sticks from the centre Elliot Daly – that brought the 17,000-strong audience to its collective feet. But as the entire sport is dominated by international affairs now, most of the after-match talk concerned Brad Barritt and his latest injury.
The Saracens midfielder was widely expected to return to England’s starting line-up for this weekend’s Calcutta Cup match with Scotland at Twickenham: all he had to do, his many supporters claimed, was make his tackles and leave the field in one piece. Barritt did the first bit – the last time he missed a hit on an opponent in open field, Noah was playing wet-weather rugby for his local Under-8s – but could not quite manage the second.
Saracens had recovered from an early 14-point deficit – inflicted upon them by the Wade-Daly double strike in the space of 90 seconds in the opening quarter – to lead 23-17 when, just shy of the hour, the South African-born centre chased one of his side’s many high kicks and engaged the Wasps outside-half Andy Goode in an entirely legitimate aerial challenge. Both men hit the deck hard, but Barritt stayed down. He waved away the stretcher-bearers – of all the hard cases in the Premiership, precious few can claim to be tougher than this bloke – but judging by the way he hobbled towards the touchline, his chances of facing the Scots are remote.
Barritt appeared to be worried about his right ankle, but there were those supposedly in the know who claimed he had mangled a ligament in his knee. All Mark McCall, the Saracens rugby director, felt able to say with any certainty was that his key defender was heading for the nearest hospital scanning machine. “Let’s hope it isn’t as bad as it initially seemed, because he doesn’t deserve this,” McCall added.
Itoje, operating at blind-side flanker after a heavy-duty stint at lock, and the deceptively creative George had no such issues, happily. You do not need to be Carwyn James incarnate to detect some international potential in the former: Itoje’s ability not just to cope with steps up in class but to stamp his personality and authority on whatever competitive environment he happens to find himself in is nothing short of remarkable.
George, still in his early 20s but far more experienced in the ways of Premiership rugby, does not enjoy the same kind of profile, but as McCall indicated, there is no sensible reason why this should be the case. “I thought Jamie was magnificent out there,” the Ulsterman commented. “He has a sense of timing, a sense of space, and his defensive game has improved out of all recognition. It’s not my job to place him in the England pecking order, but he’s as good a hooker as there is around the place.”
These two youngsters – and, indeed, a third in the muscular shape of the No 8 Jackson Wray – were at the heart of things as Saracens squeezed their hosts in all the principal theatres of conflict. And with Richard Wigglesworth finding his kicking range from scrum-half (the second-string England No 9 played precisely the kind of role performed to such devastating effect by Ireland’s Conor Murray during the big match in Dublin), the visitors were more comfortable in victory than the winning margin suggested.
“We knew what was coming,” said David Young, the Wasps boss. “We knew there would be a lot of ball in the air, and that if we didn’t deal with it we’d spend a lot of the game in our own 22.” Wasps didn’t deal with it… and guess what? After that early splurge of points, all they registered on the scoreboard was a big fat zero.
Wray’s close-range finish from a driven maul on 21 minutes launched the turnaround, and when Mako Vunipola made a mess of Ashley Johnson’s first-up tackling following Tom Lindsay’s line-out overthrow, Wigglesworth slid a wicked little grubber kick towards the left flag and punched the air in jubilation as Chris Wyles, the American wing, picked up the ball one-handed and successfully grounded it despite the attentions of Wade.
True to form, Alex Goode converted both tries with handsome strikes from unpromising positions. He really is a cool customer: full-back for England one week, outside-half for Saracens the next – and barely a hint of a missed beat. It may well be that for all his footballing skills and innate rugby understanding, he will be surplus to requirements at Twickenham. If that turns out to be the case, his luck will be just about as rotten as Barritt’s.Reuse content