Who needs tries? Owen Farrell kicks Saracens past Harlequins
Harlequins 16 Saracens 18
Saracens have now played precisely 260 minutes of rugby without scoring a try, which is no mean achievement for a side armed with attacking players as clever as Alex Goode, as inspirational as Schalk Brits and as opportunistic as Chris Ashton.
It is not entirely beyond the realms of possibility they will never cross the opposition whitewash again. Would that worry them? Would it heck. Premiership rugby is more a hard game than a pretty one these days and as far as the north Londoners are concerned, there are more important things in life than tripping the light fantastic. Winning, for instance.
"If we're not scoring, it's not for the want of trying," said Mark McCall, their director of rugby, when asked if he was losing sleep over the great fusillades of blanks routinely fired by his expensively assembled back division. Does he regard it as a significant cause for concern? "Not when you've just beaten the reigning champions at their place," he responded.
Owen Farrell, the unwilling recipient of much criticism in recent weeks, scored all the points that mattered in this fierce, occasionally fractious derby, every last one of them from the kicking tee. In truth, the England midfielder did not look like missing – unlike his celebrated opposite number Nick Evans, the All Black outside-half and Harlequins folk hero, whose aim was nowhere near as true as usual, to the extent that a well-worn phrase containing the words "cow's backside" and "banjo" sprang to mind. What was more, Farrell smashed seven bells out of all-comers in defence. Whatever he lacks in the arts and crafts department, he lacks nothing in warrior spirit.
Which pretty much summed up the Saracens performance as a whole, for they were aggressively confrontational from first minute to last. "We felt we'd lost ourselves a little in the previous couple of games, especially in the second half at Exeter when our composure disappeared and the players were on each others' cases, which was not like us at all," McCall said.
"So we had a good talk in the week before this match about what we are and how we see ourselves – a talk driven by the whole group, not by me. As a result of it, I think we've found ourselves again."
They certainly found ways of squeezing Harlequins' pips. Try as they might, the home side's playmakers – Evans, Danny Care, Nick Easter – could not break the stranglehold imposed on them by the visitors, led as resourcefully as ever by Steve Borthwick and based squarely on the selfless, near-heroic contributions of Brad Barritt at inside-centre and Will Fraser on the open-side flank. One of Fraser's turnovers, on the hapless Matt Hopper, allowed Farrell to open the second-half scoring from 46 metres and from there on in, a first defeat of the season for the home side was always on the cards.
Saracens might have won more comfortably but for yet another peculiarity generated by the extension of the Television Match Official's powers: a five-week old experiment that is proving every bit as ridiculous as the sceptics feared it would when it was announced in late August.
Care's try four minutes shy of the interval was a deeply questionable affair – the England scrum-half appeared to knock the ball on at the base of a scruffy-looking ruck on the visitors' 22 before running through the middle of it and touching down at the sticks – but was there a referral from Andrew Small, the referee? Fat chance. The only referrals currently in vogue are for minor indiscretions in barely relevant areas of the field, as the Quins lock George Robson would discover later in yesterday's contest.
McCall shook his head mournfully at the mere mention of this nonsense, as well he might, but he must have been equally flabbergasted by his side's failure to break their try-scoring famine just before the half-hour. Brits, who would later make a jaw-dropping break from his own 22 and go within a hair's breadth of creating a score with the most delicate of chips to the line, was freed by Farrell down a promising blind-side channel and seemed all but certain to send Ashton in for a try. Instead, the Springbok hooker passed too early and allowed Mike Brown to complete a try-saving tackle.
Such travesties tend to occur when a team is struggling for attacking fluency, but in most other areas, and particularly at the breakdown, Saracens were the guv'nors. Fraser, introduced to the senior side after injuries to Jacques Burger and Andy Saull, lost nothing to the England captain Chris Robshaw amid the rough and tumble and there were striking contributions from two of the visitors' increasingly large South African contingent, the lock Alistair Hargreaves and the No 8 Ernst Joubert.
Not that Saracens needed one of their own, South African or otherwise, to present them with victory as they entered the last 10 minutes a point adrift at 15-16.
That dubious honour fell to Evans, who contrived to send an up-and-under sailing over his own right shoulder, thereby putting most of his back division a mile offside and handing Farrell the chance to win it from 32 metres. This he did, with a minimum of fuss and bother, and as a consequence, the team's annual visit to the Munich Beer Festival will be more festive – and, indeed, more beer-soaked – than it might otherwise have been.
Harlequins: Try Care. Conversion Evans. Penalties Evans 3. Saracens: Penalties Farrell 6. Harlequins M Brown; Stegmann, Hooper (Lindsay-Hague, 2-9), Turner-Hall, Monye; Evans, Care; Marler, Gray (Buchanan, 9-23 and 27), Johnston, O Kohn (Matthews 55), Robson, Guest (Fa'asavalu 55), Robshaw (capt), Easter. Saracens Goode; Ashton (Tomkins 59-67), Tomkins (Strettle, 52), Barritt, Wyles (Hodgson 68); Farrell, Wigglesworth (Spencer 73); Gill (Vunipola 48), Brits (Smit 62), Du Plessis (Stevens 44), Borthwick (capt), Hargreaves (Kruis 53), K Brown, Fraser (Saull 71), Joubert. Referee A Small (London).
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