Johnston stakes claim for England call

Saracens 27 Leeds 3
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The outcome of this match was more significant for Rotherham than for either of these two teams. While victory meant Saracens are now breathing down Leeds' necks, just two points behind the Tykes, the South Yorkshire club have effectively been cast adrift, 21 points behind the other 11 Zurich Premiership sides.

There was a distinctly festive air during the match, but it was not until the second half that Saracens showed any continuity or structure in their game.

Their captain, Taine Randell, was a key factor in this. He was an inspiration whether taking the ball up, smashing down Leeds attackers or muscling for possession on the ground. And the centre Ben Johnston did his international prospects no harm with a fine all-round display.

The pity of it was that Saracens could not nail down that fourth try for a bonus point, a fact that Rod Kafer, their laid-back head coach, lamented afterwards. But overall it was an improvement on performances in the previous year.

The mood was lifted by the appearance of the Webb Ellis Cup, which was paraded around Vicarage Road before the kick-off and brought a standing ovation from the enthusiastic crowd. But there was precious little to cheer on the field during a scrappy first half, when players from both sides appeared to find the greasy conditions too tricky to handle and also kept falling foul of the referee, which all led to patchy play and fractious moments.

Leeds' Gary Powell and Saracens' Steven Sparks were shown yellow cards as the half entered added time after taking a few swings at each other.

That made the Tykes resemble their rugby league stablemates the Rhinos since they had just seen the No 8, Matt Salter, head for the sin-bin after he foolishly came in off-side at a ruck.

The 13 men of the North managed to hold out until the interval without letting their opponents increase their lead. In fact, had it not been for the Saracens centre Phil Bailey putting in a last-ditch tackle to bundle Phil Christophers into touch, the Tykes might have slipped ahead.

As it was, Saracens nosed in front thanks to two of Thomas Castaignède's penalty attempts going over. They could have been further ahead given the chances created by the thrusting power runs of the impressive Johnston.

The England coach, Clive Woodward, need look no further than the 25-year-old Johnston as a replacement for the injured Mike Tindall. And Johnston already has two caps to his name, having appeared against Argentina and New Zealand in 2002.

Saracens also stirred the crowd and shook Leeds through the searing pace of the full-back, Richard Haughton, who brought spectators to their feet after a quarter of an hour with a thrilling chase and run to the Leeds line. Had it not been for an errant foot into touch he would have been free and clear. It was a pity that a second migraine attack in successive matches robbed everyone of his skills after half-time.

The second half was far more lively, and Saracens looked far more determined. It took some 90 seconds of video deliberation before Kyran Bracken was denied a try after taking a quick penalty from five metres out.

He was immediately replaced by Morgan Williams and left the pitch looking disgusted. No matter, as the Leeds scrum-half, Ryan Walker, strayed off-side at the scrum after Bracken's brave effort and Saracens were awarded a penalty try which Castaignède converted.

The French fly-half scored a dazzling try himself shortly afterwards. Then some great work by Randell led to Saracens' third try, when another Frenchman, Raphael Ibanez, opened his Premiership account and closed off the match.

Saracens: Tries Penalty try, Castaignède, Ibanez; Conversions Castaignède 2, Kydd; Penalties: Castaignède 2. Leeds: Penalty Ross.

Saracens: R Haughton (R Kydd, h-t - 80+7 and A Wynnan 80+7); D Cech, P Bailey, B Johnston, D O'Mahony; T Castaignède, K Bracken (M Williams, 52); S Sparks (E Bergamaschi, 64), R Ibanez, C Visagie (S Sparks, 74), S Raiwalui (capt), A Codling, T Roques (E Bergamaschi, 16-19 & 40+2 - 46; B Skirving 20-29), T Randell, B Russell.

Leeds: M Cardey (D Scarbrough, 52); L Botham, A Snyman, T Davies, P Christophers; G Ross (T Walsh, 73), R Walker; M Shelley (capt), M Regan (M Cusack, 65), G Powell (M Holt, 59), P Murphy, T Palmer, C Rigney (M Holt, 40+2 - 46), M Salter (A Persico, 71), J Ponton (D Hyde, h-t).

Referee: A Rowden (Reading).