By Jeremy O'Garibaldi
April 16 2012
It was a trip down memory lane for me in the villages of south Oxfordshire on the way to the MadStad. Watching the kites swooping low until the green fields gave way to green rugby shirts on the outskirts of Reading. A last minute raid on the Irish ticket office netted Murray and I tickets right on the halfway line; an excellent view.
However the fare served up by Sarries in the opening stages left a little to be desired; a hangover from the Clermont game seemed to be on offer. Irish were soon playing the game in the Sarries half and although the defense wasn’t under pressure, with Tom Homers range penalties were going to be costly. When Sarries did get the ball Brad tried to break out around halfway but was isolated and pinged for not releasing; I think that’s only about the fourth time he has done that in 3 seasons and twice in two weeks. Homer put Irish ahead.
Irish were trying to slow Sarries down in the tackle area and had given away a couple of penalties in our half, but from an advantage from a third on the 22, Charlie slotted over a drop-goal to level the scores. Shortly afterwards Micheal Tagi went off and was replaced by Tompkins. The game was settling down with both sides kicking probably more than was required and to be honest this suited Sarries more than Irish, not least as their chase was better. The scrum looked a bit of a dodgy area, with Irish seeming to be the best on paper. In the initial scrum in early in our 22, it did seem that Brits stood up first; Sarries had the penalty though. Not so lucky from the two later in the first half: Homer kicking both to push Irish 9-3 clear.
It wasn’t just the scrum that was creaking. Kruis seemed to be cleaning up in the lineout, but then gave the ball away when back on the ground; lack of support. Irish wrestled the ball off him but didn’t really take advantage. Then Sarries managed a successful kick-chase winning a kickable penalty that Charlie landed to bring the gap back to 3 points. Then disaster: Kruis seemed to have taken a lineout cleanly on our 10 yard line, when from the resulting maul Garvey burst away with the ball. From the second phase driving forwards tied up Brad Barritt and when the ball came out quickly Irish had a four on two; the pantomime villain Armitage scoring in the corner. Homer missed the conversion, crucially as it turned out.
At 14-6, Irish suddenly looked rampant, especially when they ran the ball our wide where Tompkins’ defense looked “uncertain”. However, Jarvis came to Sarries rescue and kicked away possession at every opportunity. After a series of lineouts around the halfway line, Sarries seemed to be taking a bit more control and Irish were twice guilty of not rolling away in quick succession around the centre mark. The first attempt from Charlie seemed ambitious from 5 meters into the Irish half, but his success emboldened him to try from 5 yards into the Sarries half two minutes later. From the second offence Irish were warned that any further offences would not be tolerated. Half time came with the score 14-12.
Discussions in the interval seemed to be that a win was going to be on the cards if Sarries upped their game and from the restart they certainly did. Kicking stopped, but that might have been because the game was being played twenty or so yards further up the pitch. A Brits kick return ended badly with him being picked up physically by four or five Irish defenders, but Sarries kept trying and shortly afterwards Strettle made a great run and although stopped the ball came backwards slowly and played out to Wyles, advantage was being played. Sarries had a penalty on the 22 and Gibson sent to the bin for killing the ball. Hodgson put Sarries into the lead for the first time in the match and started pressing for more. A penalty in our own half was pushed up to around the 22 and from the resulting take Sarries drove and drove to the line. At the death they were completely in control of the ball; Will Fraser diving over for a 14-22 lead after the conversion. I counted eleven instances of Irish players coming in from the side during the drive and it was great credit to the pack that they did not succumb.
Sarries dominance with the ball seemed complete and at first tried the side to side driving runs we are all used to. Irish countered by leaving no men in the rucks and fanning across the pitch. Surprisingly, a change of tactic as Krius, Wray and Fraser seemed to burst through around the ruck whenever they wanted to. The last ditch Irish defense held out and the y poured men back into the ruck area. I’m a little disappointed that Wiggie (who was on for deKock by then) didn’t feed the backs when an overlap was created. As usual, most attacks petered out with a knock-on.
Then a great bit of individual skill by Dylan Armitage; seemingly closed down and surrounded by 3 defenders he wriggled through the gap as each thought the other was going to make the tackle. Even Goode missed him and he scored his second try in the corner for a man of the match winning performance. Homer again missed the conversion and Irish were only 3 points behind with 15 minutes to go. Hodgson steadied the ship with ten to go with another penalty after a scrum offense. Sarries second string scrimmage were a bit more effective than the first choice: probably more due to the difference between Irish’s first and second choice.
Shortly after the restart Will Fraser got himself into trouble; following up on a routine kick-chase that wasn’t long or high, Homer seemed to jump to take the ball at the last moment and Fraser hit him on the way up . There wasn’t really any other option except for a yellow card, which led to a tense last 8 minutes. Irish started go give it everything, going for a try and an unlikely win with a series of forward drives on the 22. This was meat and drink for the 9 minute 9 second defense and it seemed only a matter of time before Sarries turned the ball over. Irish initially drove forward until they were around 15 yards out, but after a scrum and some tight defense they were back nearly on halfway when the penalty for not releasing came about.
Hodgson put the lineout on the 22 and a similar drive to the try started, but this time the ball came back and Charlie dropped a goal. This put Sarries 9 points up and it was game over. Irish had 44 seconds on the clock to try and get a losing bonus point but were unable to get their hands on the ball
Overall a workmanlike win; made better by some invention in the second half. However the defense out wide was a little dubious as Irish manage to break the gain line on the outside at least 5 occasions during the match. It made Jarvis’s kicking game seem a little stupid; an attacking coach of Mike Catt’s ability should have made the change. Tomkins seemed a little out of his depth, I would prefer to see Powell for the rest of the season. George Kruis was the man of the match for me; the best performance I’ve seen from him in a Sarries shirt. I just felt that if Andy Saull had played, he would have scored a few tries. This is taking nothing away from Wray and Fraser who were at least on par with the Irish back row.
London Irish (14) 19
Tries: Armitage 2Pens: Homer 3
Saracens (12) 28
Tries: FraserCons: HogsonPens: Hodgson 5Drop Goal: : Hodgson 2
London Irish: Homer; D Armitage, Jospeh, Ansboro, Tagicakibau; Jarvis, Allinson; Corbisiero (capt), Paice, Rautenbach; Evans, Garvey; Gibson, Thorpe, Treviranus.
Replacements: Buckland, Lahiff, Halavatau, Sinclair, Gray, Ojo, Shingler, Samson.
Saracens: Goode; Strettle, Wyles, Barritt, Tagicakibau; Hodgson, De Kock; Gill, Brits, Stevens; Borthwick (capt), Kruis; Wray, Fraser, Joubert.
Replacements: George, Vunipola, Nieto, Botha, Melck, Wigglesworth, Powell, Tomkins.