Saracens 19 London Irish 8: Farrell's influence clear in absence

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The Independent Online

Another silly kick-off time, another 40-minute performance from a Saracens team capable of so much better and no Andy Farrell, at the behest of the same England hierarchy who gave London Irish permission to play Mike Catt from the start. The good rugby folk of Watford and its environs spent yesterday afternoon attempting to navigate the parallel universe known as the Guinness Premiership. Anyone making the remotest sense of proceedings at Vicarage Road, where the home side climbed to fifth place despite taking the second half off, should join Mensa.

Maybe Farrell, relaxing ahead of what the world and his dog assume will be his England debut this coming weekend, would have answered some of the questions still hanging in the air at the final whistle. Certainly, the Saracens coach, Alan Gaffney, believes the former rugby league international is ripe for Test honours in his new code, despite his lack of game time at inside centre.

"Andy has made it to this stage more quickly than I imagined he would, but he's worked incredibly hard," Gaffney said. "I think he's worth a go. He has the kicking game; what is more, he has become an excellent midfield defender, which is a more complicated thing than merely being a good tackler."

In Farrell's absence, there was not quite enough craft in the Saracens back division to extract full value from a convincing first-half effort from Simon Raiwalui and his pack. A penalty try on the half-hour, awarded after the visitors' scrum was stripped bare by Kevin Yates and Cobus Visagie, and a fistful of three-pointers from Glen Jackson was a poor return, given the amount of time the home side spent on the front foot.

As it was, London Irish were toothless rather than ruthless. It was not so much a case of them struggling with the lunchtime start, as being out to lunch en masse. Steffon Armitage, the squat open-side flanker who spent his formative years at Saracens, was sufficiently interested to engage in an early squabble with the unusually substantial Raiwalui, who took hold of the aggressor by the scruff of the neck and told him not be so daft. Eighty-odd minutes later, Armitage's brother, Delon, could be seen throwing handbags during a half-hearted fracas on the near touchline. In between, few Irish players achieved anything of note.

The latter Armitage did cross for a try in stoppage time, courtesy of some sharp running from Topsy Ojo, but Saracens were over the hills and far away. Gaffney has his men doing lots of things rather well; indeed, they have a whiff of a top-four about them. But there is something missing. Does it all come down to Farrell? We will find out in the middle of next month, when Gloucester come to town.

Saracens: Try Penalty; Conversion Jackson; Penalties Jackson 4; London Irish: Try D Armitage; Penalty Flutey.

Saracens: D Scarbrough; R Haughton (R Penney, 80), K Sorrell, A Powell, K Ratuvou;

G Jackson, N de Kock (A Dickens, 78); K Yates, M Cairns (F Ongaro, 44-52 & 78), C Visagie (C Johnston, 41), I Fullarton, S Raiwalui (capt, H Vyvyan, 78), K Chesney, R Hill (D Seymour, 80), B Skirving.

London Irish: D Armitage; T Ojo, S Mapusua (N Mordt, 39), M Catt (capt), S Tagicakibau; R Flutey, P Hodgson; N Hatley (T Lea'aetoa, 30), D Coetzee (R Russell, 64), F Rautenbach, N Kennedy (J Hudson, 80), R Casey, K Roche, S Armitage, J M Leguizamon (P Murphy, 40).

Referee: D Pearson (Northumberland).