By King Zak
February 14 2017
A truly awful performance from Saracens saw them somehow steal a losing bonus point against a revitalised Worcester side, superbly marshalled by Francois Hougaard & Ryan Mills and led by the indefatigable Donnach O’Callaghan.
From the very first kick, the visitors were at least a yard slower in pace and two yards slower in thought than their hosts. It has become typical of Saracens in recent seasons that the 6 Nations period sees a return to 'play it simple', generally kicking away possession on second phase ball and having quite a ‘closed’ game plan (some may argue that’s all they ever do). Against Worcester they did it very badly! I was reminded after the game that it was 12 months to the weekend that Saracens were humiliated by Wasps at Allianz Park. Had they played the same opposition this weekend, I feel the result would have been similar to that of 2016.
Tactically, Saracens were poor – their execution of it even worse. The number of ‘skill errors’ was huge; high balls dropped, passes going astray, set piece uncertain, all contributing to an unusually nervous and disrupted performance from the Men in Red. As against Wasps in 2016, Saracens had a fullback who looked nervous and uncertain, something Hougaard & Mills were only too keen to exploit. In Heem & Humphreys in particular, they had willing chasers who were able to compete for the high, hanging kicks raining down on the Saracens back three. As for their own kicking game, the usually immaculate Wigglesworth was way off target, frequently kicking too long, or directly into touch; Lozowski was little better. It all meant that Warriors were consistently able to dominate territory and, aided by further Saracens errors, possession too.
Add into this a lethargic and poorly disciplined approach to the breakdown, resulting in the concession of numerous penalties, and the platform was set for a Worcester victory.
Three Mills penalties and a yellow card shown to Ellery for a clumsy, late challenge had the Warriors holding a comfortable 9-0 lead after 30 minutes. This seemed to finally galvanise Saracens into action and they made their first incursion into the hosts 22. A driving maul, delicate chip from Wigglesworth and there was Chris Ashton beating the defender and deadball line to remind us of what we will miss next season. It was Ashton at his try poaching best. Lozowski added the conversion and, very much against the run of play, Saracens were back in contention.
It didn’t last long! Gallagher dropped the restart allowing Worcester possession in the Saracens 22 and it was no surprise when another penalty was conceded, giving Mills the simple job of securing a 12-7 lead at the break. Other than the Ashton try, Saracens had offered absolutely nothing in attack, they were fortunate to be only 5 points behind.
The second period saw Figallo replace du Plessis and it seemed that Saracens were finally going to get some momentum as a couple of penalties allowed them to get into the Worcester half. Another penalty was won but Lozowski’s kick fell well short and wide. It was a somewhat surprising decision to attempt the kick as they had the chance to gain some momentum, territory and pressure. The one time they did that in the first half had resulted in the try. Worcester were in control of the game but, given their rather precarious league position, I felt that Saracens could have applied more pressure to a team that may have allowed their own nerves to affect their play. However, they decided to continue with the pragmatic kicking game, the outcome of which did not improve!
Mills and Lozowski exchanged penalties during the first 10 minutes of the half and, whilst Saracens enjoyed a bit more possession, they still looked like doing little with it. It was a scoreline that reflected the game perfectly. That said, Warriors rarely looked like scoring a try; when the chance eventually came, the ball was dropped 5 metres from the try line with a clear run in. I’m afraid I wasn’t able to see who the culprit was (I think it may have been Wynard Olivier but I’m not sure) and it would have been no more than Worcester deserved. It did however keep Saracens in sight of a possible losing bonus point. This became a bigger possibility as Brits was driven over the line by pretty much the whole team after 72 minutes but, once again Lozowski missed the kick.
Given Worcester’s record for letting late leads sip away, an air of nervousness permeated their play, reflected by the crowd too. Another penalty came Saracens way; Spencer took over kicking duties, but he too missed! They had another chance with 40 seconds remaining, Spencer this time slotting
the successful kick to bring the score line to 24-18. Memories of the final play at Scarlets came flooding back, could Saracens squeeze a dramatic score in overtime? No chance, they barely managed to get out of their own 22.
A thoroughly deserved victory for Warriors and a most unlikely bonus point for Saracens. They had the best players on the pitch by a country mile in Hougaard & Mills, all inspired by the leadership of O’Callaghan. The image of him whipping up the crowd to generate support epitomised him and his team. Ultimately, as with the Wasps result last year, it probably won’t have a major impact on Saracens season, but has given Worcester a huge boost in their fight to Premiership status. The arrival of Gary Gold and the return of Francois Hougaard will undoubtedly help in their task.
A word for referee Tom Foley. He struggled quite a bit last season but seems to be finally gaining confidence. I thought he had a very decent game (certainly better than any player in red!). He got all the big decisions correct, save one. A break late on by Ellery saw Spencer sprint towards the try line, only to be called back for an apparent forward pass. Replays suggested it was flat at worst. Would it have changed the outcome of the game? Quite possibly, but it would have been harsh on Worcester and was one of those decisions that sometimes you benefit from and others you don’t.
Worcester is a great ground to visit and has what I consider to be the best stadium announcer. His urging of the North Stand to “stomp your feet ‘til you break an ankle” and “the TMO sponsored by the Austin Healy Appreciation Society, known as ASAS” (asses) were priceless. However, I was somewhat disappointed that there wasn't an opportunity to honour the passing of a wonderful rugby player and person. The death of the mercurial Joost van der Westhuizen in such tragic circumstances was surely deserving of a minute’s applause pre-game.
It was a disappointing performance from Saracens but I was quickly reminded of why Worcester is such a favourite place to visit. Good rugby chat and beer in the bar (watching England beat Wales!) then into Worcester to continue the ‘cultural exchange’ (I can highly recommend the Church End Brewery at the Dragon). There will need to be considerable improvement on the pitch Friday evening in Gloucester!
Worcester Warriors: 15 Josh Adams, 14 Bryce Heem, 13 Wynand Olivier, 12 Jackson Willison, 11 Perry Humphreys, 10 Ryan Mills, 9 Francois Hougaard; 1 Val Rapava Ruskin, 2 Jack Singleton, 3 Nick Schonert, 4 Donncha O'Callaghan (C), 5 Will Spencer, 6 Chris Vui, 7 Sam Lewis, 8 Alafoti Faosiliva
Replacements: 16 Jaba Bregvadze, 17 Ryan Grant, 18 Biyi Alo, 19 Tevita Cavubati, 20 Marco Mama, 21 Luke Baldwin, 22 Ryan Lamb, 23 Ben Howard
Saracens: 15 Matt Gallagher, 14 Chris Ashton, 13 Nick Tompkins, 12 Brad Barritt (c), 11 Mike Ellery, 10 Alex Lozowski, 9 Richard Wigglesworth; 1 Richard Barrington, 2 Schalk Brits, 3 Petrus Du Plessis, 4 Michael Rhodes, 5 Jim Hamilton, 6 Will Fraser, 7 Schalk Burger, 8 Jackson Wray
Replacements: 16 Jared Saunders, 17 Titi Lamositele, 18 Juan Figallo, 19 Mark Flanagan, 20 Kelly Brown, 21 Ben Spencer, 22 Max Malins, 23 Marcelo Bosch
Referee: Tom Foley