If someone had beamed down from Mars – or from rugby’s amateur era, which feels even more remote – for the Aviva Premiership leaders Saracens’ 24-19 win over Sale Sharks on Saturday how would they have judged the spectacle? An arena of wonderfully nuanced and contrasting players such as Saracens’ gliding fly-half Charlie Hodgson and cerebral lock Steve Borthwick? Or a base battlefield of mega-muscled gladiators battering each other Rollerball-style with casualties shipped off to hospital on motorised carts for the benefit of the paying public, television viewer and now – as we are told enthusiastically by competing broadcasters – broadband consumers?
Will Fraser’s woes epitomise the frailty of the human body in attempting to cope with rugby’s intense and repetitive contact, during a long season. The skillful and highly promising Saracens and England Saxons flanker will have an operation on his right leg today after sustaining a suspected break and ligament damage in an increasingly common occurrence - he was attempting a turnover at a ruck when he buckled under the weight of Andrei Ostrikov’s clear-out (Christian Wade suffered a similar fate for Wasps at London Irish on Saturday). Fraser, who had only returned to the game in October from six months out with a tendon torn off a shoulder bone, might have had a full England cap by now, but for injury.
Meantime there are 11 other players picked by England this year who are currently injured, including three from Saracens: the centres Brad Barritt and Joel Tomkins and prop Mako Vunipola. The home club rested their England wing Chris Ashton and Namibia flanker Jacques Burger, for sensible welfare reasons you would guess, although when Pro 12 teams do this before Heineken Cup matches it is derided by the Premiership as unfair.
Hodgson – another recent returnee from an Achilles tendon injury – effected one of his quick-thinking chargedowns against his old club in addition to kicking four penalties and the conversion of crucial 68th minute try by Borthwick’s protégé George Kruis. “It was a tough win and a bit of a struggle but the fact we ground it out was a credit to the team,” said Hodgson, after Borthwick, who is retiring at the end of the season, had his hands full outwitting Sale’s excellent line-out forward Mike Paterson.
The former Saracens coach Steve Diamond, now in charge of Sale, praised the younger Sharks players in the absence of 11 injured first choices – plus two more who went off in the first half – and hoped Saracens as a “super-club” would not “come poaching”. Hodgson said: “There’s obviously a perception of what Saracens are about but that’s none of my business. Steve can say what he likes. The hits and games take their toll slightly more now I am in my 30s but I am enjoying my rugby.”
The same is true for the comparatively spry Danny Cipriani on the evidence of the 26-year-old Sale fly-half’s heads-up running, positional kicking and creative handling. His converted try had Sale 13-6 ahead at half-time but Jack Wilson’s try on 44 minutes helped to rein the Sharks in. Sale have won only once away to Saracens in 18 years: in September 2005, at the much maligned Vicarage Road, when the attendance was 7132; Saturday’s at Allianz Park was 7126.
Scorers: Saracens: tries: Wilson, Kruis; conversion: Hodgson; penalties: Hodgson 4.
Sale Sharks: try: Cipriani; conversion: Cipriani; penalties: Miller, Cipriani, Macleod; drop: Cipriani.
Saracens: A Goode; J Wilson (M Bosch, 79), C Wyles, O Farrell (D Taylor, 54), D Strettle; C Hodgson, N de Kock (R Wigglesworth, 51); R Barrington, S Brits (J George, 79), M Stevens (J Johnston, 51), S Borthwick (capt), G Kruis (E Sheriff, 75), J Wray, W Fraser (K Brown, 32), E Joubert.
Sale Sharks: R Miller; C Ingall, M Jennings, J Leota, W Addison (T Brady, 15); D Cipriani (N Macleod, 75), D Peel (W Cliff, 13); R Harrison, T Taylor (M Jones, 62), V Cobilas, A Ostrikov (J Mills, 62), M Paterson, D Braid (capt; M Easter, 62), D Seymour, J Gaskell.
Referee: J P Doyle (London).