Hill's return not enough to lift Saracens

Saracens 18 Montferrand 14 Montferrand win 40-28 on agg
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The Independent Online

Winning is not everything, as Saracens discovered at a wet and echoing Vicarage Road yesterday. Although the 4,028 fans who braved the chill and the rain saw a victory in the second leg of the Parker Pen Challenge Cup, it was not enough to earn them a semi-final place.

Montferrand deservedly went through 40-28 on aggregate after a sterling display of defensive rugby, which was a lesson to all youngsters watching. There was not the glimmer of an opening throughout. Their semi-final opponents, Bath, will have their work cut out against this superbly organised side.

And the French club also scored the only try of the match, while Nicky Little's half-dozen penalties should have been the foundation to a far better score.

There was certainly no lack of imagination and they created plenty of opportunities, it was just that they could find no way through. Time and again Richard Hill would surge up the middle, scattering bodies, only to see the ball taken up a cul de sac in the French midfield.

It just was not Saracens' day. Even before a ball had been kicked they had suffered two crucial blows. Their livewire outside-half, Thomas Castaignède, was forced out yesterday morning with a groin injury.

If that was not bad enough lock Alex Codling, one of their best sources of possession at the line-out, suffered an ankle injury that could keep him out of action for up to six weeks. On top of that Cobus Visagie, the experienced Springbok prop, has still not recovered from a back problem and missed his third game in a row.

The only good piece of luck for them was that Montferrand's goal-kicker, Jerôme Gendre, was wildly off target early on.

Saracens began 16 points adrift and after 40 minutes of this second leg had managed to reduce that deficit by just one point thanks to Little.

Montferrand's try owed much to the power and pace of the flanker Olivier Magne, who thundered 40 metres upfield before off-loading to right wing Aurélien Rougerie, who scorched over. But Gendre failed with the conversion attempt and thus Little was able to nose Saracens in front by the interval with his third penalty.

Although the home side emerged with more purpose in the second half, still their line-out let them down, still the French defences held and, sadly for them, Gendre suddenly switched on his radar and knocked over two critical penalties, which ensured that Saracens would be unable to close the gap sufficiently.

Hill's comeback, six weeks after having his nose re-shaped by Troy Flavell in a so-called friendly between an England XV and the New Zealand Barbarians, would have cheered the England coach, Sir Clive Woodward, as the flanker displayed good speed to the breakdown and pace through the middle.

Saracens: Penalties Little 6. Montferrand: Try Rougerie; Penalties Gendre 2; DG Gendre.

Saracens: P Bailey (D Cech, 72); R Haughton, B Johnston, K Sorrell, D O'Mahony; N Little, K Bracken (M Williams, 37-h-t & 54); S Sparks (E Bergamaschi, 61), R Ibanez (R Russell, h-t), B Broster, S Raiwalui (capt), C Yandell, B Skirving, R Hill, T Randell.

Montferrand: J Gendre; A Rougerie, R Chanal, P Howard, S Kuzbik (M Gouasmia, 72); G Merceron, P Mignoni; B Moyle, R Cockerill (O Azam, 48), L Tsabadze, H Louw, E Pearce (T Privat, 48), M Dieude (A Audebert, 51), E Vermeulen (capt; D Bory, 55), O Magne.

Referee: N Whitehouse (Wales).

* Harlequins sneaked into the semi-finals of the Parker Pen Challenge Cup despite going down 36-20 to Brive in France. The English club went into the match at Parc Municipal des Sports with a 33-point advantage from last week's first leg. An 18-point haul from the Brive scrum-half, Valentin Courrent, rattled Quins, but it was not enough in the final reckoning.

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