Jenkins crushes Saracens' myth

Tim Glover says double defeat by Cardiff exposes England's best
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The Independent Online

François Pienaar, an arm in a sling following an operation, was resigned to the haunting prospect that he would not be taking possession of the Heineken Cup this season. "It is not in our hands any more," the Saracens director of rugby, said following his side's 24-14 defeat to Cardiff at the Arms Park on Friday night.

François Pienaar, an arm in a sling following an operation, was resigned to the haunting prospect that he would not be taking possession of the Heineken Cup this season. "It is not in our hands any more," the Saracens director of rugby, said following his side's 24-14 defeat to Cardiff at the Arms Park on Friday night.

Nor was it in their feet. Saracens, arguably England's strongest club, blew 14 points with a wretched display of goal- kicking. "If we could have kicked some of our goals we would have been in," Pienaar added. "I told the players it wouldn't be a big scoring game and that we had to take our chances. We played some good rugby but we couldn't manage to finish it off. When you put points on the board your heads are up, your passes stick and everything works."

Cardiff know the feeling. Whereas Thomas Castaignÿde and Duncan McRae missed four penalties between them, three of which were sitters, Neil Jenkins crowned an unforgettable evening with eight penalties out of eight.

In the morning he received his MBE from Prince Charles at Buckingham Palace and returned to Cardiff by helicopter at four in the afternoon, three hours before the kick-off. Had he travelled by rail or road he would never have made it. "It was bumpy ride in the wind and rain," Jenkins said, "I'm white all the time but I was even whiter after that." As it was he was fast asleep in his hotel room when Robert Norster, the Cardiff manager, rang to tell him the team bus was leaving for the ground.

Jenkins proceeded to give the impression that he could slot over goals in his sleep. No matter the distance or the difficulty of the angle, he just could not miss. He had already landed two penalties when Castaignÿde, from almost gimme range missed two, prompting the switch to McRae, who was no more successful.

In act one of this Anglo-Welsh drama at Vicarage Road last week, Cardiff, beaten at Ravenhill by Ulster in the opening match of Pool Three, turned their cup campaign around with a 32-23 victory. On that occasion Pienaar admitted: "We were outfoxed and Cardiff got their punches in first." Five yellow cards were issued in that match and Saracens lost their composure and their heads. Disastrously for the London club, Castaignÿde chose the two legs against Cardiff to have easily his worst games of the season.

The same goes for Scott Murray, one of the most gifted lock forwards in rugby. He was sent to the sin-bin at Vicarage Road and again at the Arms Park. "Saracens let themselves down," Robert Howley, the Cardiff captain, said. "You can't expect to win with players in the sin-bin."

Pienaar's gamble on Murray backfired. The Scotland international has been playing with a bandaged knee and has not been fit enough to go the distance. His frustration has been all too evident. With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that Saracens should never have played him.

Having had a week to rethink their strategy, Saracens were disappointingly predictable on Friday night. Cardiff thought their opponents might have played Castaignÿde at stand-off, but in the event a superbly organised home defence comfortably contained attacks which repeatedly tried to go through gaps that did not exist.

Kevin Sorrell got the only try of the match - taking scrum ball from Tony Diprose but McRae missed the conversion - to keep Saracens in touch in the first half, and when Castaignÿde kicked his third penalty midway through the second half they were still in it at 18-14.

Then Bill Davison, Murray's replacement, was penalised for putting the boot in and Danny Grewcock, who had already been warned for a late charge on Jenkins, got a yellow card for a high tackle on Jamie Robinson. Jenkins, of course, kicked both penalties to equal his own record of eight goals in the competition.

Cardiff now have to wait until 13 January, when they will play Ulster at the Arms Park, to win the group and secure a place in the quarter-finals, a stage they have never failed to reach in four previous attempts, although they have yet to get their hands on the cup itself.

Victory over Ulster - only Swansea have beaten Cardiff at the Arms Park in 51 matches since 1997 - would be the clincher because if Saracens, home to Toulouse and away to the Irish province in January, won both to draw level on points with Cardiff, the Welsh champions would go through to the last eight.

The determining factor is the results of matches between the clubs which are tied at the top of the pool and as everybody in the capital of Wales is aware - there was almost an international fervour to his match and tickets could not be had for love nor money - the decisive scoreline in Pool Three is Cardiff 2, Saracens 0.

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