Sunday, December 30, 2007

Festive Falcons Visit

With Saracens' recent form, I think most folks were expecting an easy victory against the visiting Newcastle Falcons. But we all know what comes before a fall, and Jonny Wilkinson & Co pulled off their first victory at Vicarage Road since 2001, and also their first away win in the Premiership in over a year.

As has happened in recent weeks for the Men In Black, the first half was a bit of a disaster. A fortnight ago in Viadana, they managed the comeback-from-the-dead, turning round a 26-3 deficit at half time, into a miraculous 26-34 win by final whistle. The travelling fans were naturally ecstatic. Those of us at home following the game online were left nursing our bitten fingernails!

The biggest casualty of the game was Hooker Matt Cairns [above] who suffered a broken arm during the match, and has since had a metal plate inserted to aid recovery, but he will be out until at least the end of March. The Gaffer is naturally worried about Hooking cover during the Six Nations, as Fabio Ongaro is likely to be called up by Italy for the duration. We all hope Cairnsy has a speedy recouperation!

The Christmas fixture on 22nd December saw Sarrie and his team travel away to Harlequins. Yet again, the first 30-odd minutes were pretty dire from all accounts. I was unable to follow this one online as my broadband connection was broken for 10 days over Christmas! Very annoying. Still, Sarries managed to pull back a 20-27 win.

I think the Christmas holidays must have been relaxing for the guys, since they seemed to come out of the tunnel for the Newcastle game thinking they were easily going to beat the Falcons. Within 3 minutes the defence was caught napping and Matthew Tait beat Brent Russell to cross the line for a try.

[Look Who's Behind You! Jonny Wilkinson is manaced by Lock Chris Jack]

Whilst Jonny's playmaking skills seemed fine, his placekicking left a bit to be desired. He missed at least two kicks at goal, and Saracens' Gordon Ross, starting the first half, wasn't a lot better. Odd, since it wasn't particularly windy, even though the rain appeared for a while.

The Falcons' Scrum seemed to stand up at every opportunity, and I'm surprised referee Sean Davey didn't ping them for it more often. Saracens have been having a good scrum of late, so there's no reason to think just because Carl Hayman was gracing the Newcastle Front Row that things would change dramatically - Kevin Yates left] and Cencus Johnston are pretty good masters of the dark arts themselves!

Another thing that wasn't going too well for Saracens was their lineout. Several were stolen during the game, which doesn't happen often. Perhaps we shouldn't have been surprised, give the statistics that Newcastle's Lock Mark Sorenson is the top lineout stealer in the Premiership, and is 3rd for catching his own team throws. No wonder Hugh Vyvyan [right], looked so surprised to have caught this one!

Sarries woke up in the second half and played some good rugby, scoring two tries (Vyvyan and de Kock) plus having another judged to have been held up over the line by the TMO.

They even went into the lead briefly towards the end, but Newcastle's Jamie Noon put the nail in the coffin scoring in the 78th minute, with Jonny Wilkinson [left] hammering it further in with the conversion.

One thing I did find confusing was the Falcons' away strip, which seems to be a direct ripoff of England's gear from a couple of years ago. Perhaps they got them in a closeout sale?

At least losing by only 3 points meant Sarries pick up a bonus point, which might well come in handy later in the season. And they are still 3rd in the Premiership table at present. Next weekend's away trip to Brizzle will see if they can climb any higher in the near future.

You can see more of my photos from Sunday's game here.

Next time I'm at Vicarage Road will be for the Heineken Cup tie against Biarritz on 12th January - hopefully it won't be quite as dark as it was for the Newcastle game! And a victory then would certainly help Sarries towards a HC Quater Final place.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Viadana Get Pulped

I have to admit, I had little enthusiasm for the idea of rugby on a pouring wet day, and as I set out to drive the 100+ mile round trip in a deluge yesterday, I sincerely hoped it would be worth my trouble. I had decided against going on the train (an equally appalling prospect from Chelmsford to Watford), so had to queue for half an hour for a car park space with all the Christmas shoppers. Thankfully, I'd left loads of time for the trip.

The rain was still lashing down when the game started, and I feared we were in for a dull kicking game with lots of handling errors. How wrong could I be! Within the first 2 minutes, Saracens had scored through new Fijian Flaker Sakiusa Matadigo [left], making his home debut for the club.

Most of the fans sat there in happy disbelief as Sarries proceded to score another four tries before half time, bagging the all-important bonus point with only half the match gone!

Two more new signings were also taking the field for the first time in First Team colours, having performed well in the A-Team's 63-0 drubbing of Bath last Monday. Namely All Black Lock Chris Jack [right, with Hugh Vyvyan dwarfing Captain Neil de Kock during a break in play] and South African Utility Back Brent Russell.

CJ showed what a class act he is, stealing lineouts, running in broken play and setting up some lovely cheeky reverse pass offloads, one of which gave Kameli Ratouvu his first try during the match. Alan Gaffney has said the rest of the squad need to get into a higher gear so they can keep up with him - but from what I saw, they weren't having much trouble!

One guy who definitely wouldn't have any problem keeping pace with the big Kiwi is the aforementioned Russell [left, just about to kick the ball down the opposition Fullback's throat]. Whenever he saw half a gap, he was off like greased lightening. And he was solid under the high ball catches even with such tricky handling conditions. So money well spent, I reckon!

The rest of the team seemed to be working really well together too - there was plenty of quick ball and passing out of the tackles. The scrum was immense, winning at least three against the head and worrying the Italians on plenty of other occasions - but to give them credit, they rarely buckled and gave away penalties at the scrum - Viadana's speciality seemed to be straying offside at rucks. Most of the time, the ref spotted it quickly and Sarries were awarded another penalty. Most were taken as kicks to the corner for a catch and drive move, and Glen Jackson only had one penalty attempt at goal all afternoon. He got that, and 9 out of the 10 conversions!

Cencus Johnston [right] came on for Cobus Visagie after the break, and got up to his usual tricks - he made good ground and has a lovely sidestep which seems to fool the opposition defences - they obviously don't believe a 20-stone prop can be so mobile!

By the end of the match, poor old Viadana were looking rather tired and glad it was over - they did score one try of their own, by Fly Half Calvin Howarth [left], from a wayward Saracens' pass which he intercepted and ran most of the way up field to score. Although he converted it, he hadn't had a great time with the boot for the rest of the game - several restart kicks either didn't go 10m, or went straight out into touch - and at other times, he failed to find touch when he needed to!

Other honourable mentions should go to Richard Hill - great to see him having a good game and scoring from a pushover, and Richard "Del Boy" Haughton who scored three tries. All in all, well worth the stinking journey round the M25 to see - Saracens' highest win in their Heineken Cup history. Let's hope they can get another 5-point victory next week - when they are away to Viadana. I'm sure they will have a good psychological advantage now!

You can see more of my photos from Saturday's game here.

The other surprise of the weekend was Glasgow beating Biarritz 9-6 to take them to second in Pool 4 - with Sarries sitting nicely at the top: