Sunday, April 06, 2008

Revenge: A Dish Best Served Cold

What a difference a fortnight makes!

Saracens' fans didn't dare hope they might see such a turn around in their team's fortunes, but they were surprised and delighted with the guys' performance against the Ospreys at Vicarage Road.

It was one of the best games I have ever witnessed Saracens play, in my 4+ years of watching them. Everyone from 1 to 22 put their all into the game.

[Slippery Winger Shane Williams is tackled by ferocious Sarries defence. By closing him down so often, Sarries severely restricted the Ospreys' scoring ability]

The Ospreys started brightly enough, with James Hook slotting a penalty in the 2nd minute. Sarries' Glen Jackson replied with two of his own in the 10th and 15th minutes. By the half hour, Sarries had lost both Brent Russell (hamstring) and Andy Farrell (shoulder) to injury. That could have proved to be unsettling for the team, but subs Francicso Leonelli and Adam Powell slotted in with barely a stutter.

Just before half time, Paul Gustard made a break but was brought up within inches short of the line, the TMO having to decide, much to the disappointment of the home fans.

[Fly Half James Hook was far from his usual best. Another factor in the Ospreys losing the plot]

Leonelli scored a crucial try in the 2nd mintue of the new half, with Glen Jackson having no trouble with the wide out conversion. In the 57th minute, Sarries were all but home again when Osprey Lee Byrne knocked on deliberately in a desparate attempt at defence. The ref had no hesitation in sending him to the bin for 10 minutes for cynical play, and Jackson slotted the extras to take Sarries to a 16-3 lead.

[Scrum Half Justin Marshall clears from a ruck, but wasn't able to marshall his troops as well as his name suggests - or with quite the aplomb of injured Mike Phillips]

After a raft of subsitutions for both sides, Osprey replacement Paul James managed to burrow over from close range for a score in the 74th minute. That meant a nailbiling last 6 minutes for Sarries, with only a 6 point advantage.

[Nick Lloyd goes for a trot. To a man, the Sarries boys were popping up all over the pitch in defence and attack, where you least expected them]

The Black defensive line held firm, and they even went on the attack again. Working themselves into the opposition 22, and up towards the 10m line with 2 minutes to go, Glen Jackson kept a calm head and true aim with the boot to drop a goal and put Sarries 9 points up. It was then a case of keeping possession, defending to the death and ticking the clock down.

[right - Hugh Vyvyan clutches the ball like a man possessed, watched by muddy Winger Richard Haughton]

With the crowd counting down the seconds, Sarries regained possession of the ball, hoofed it into the stands and propelled themselves into an historic Heineken Cup Semi Final against Munster at the Ricoh Arena on 27th April.

The sellout home crowd went nuts, such success all too rare in important games at Vicarage Road. Richard Hill, a master all afternoon of the dark arts of defence and disruption, was Man of the Match. Let's hope the team can take him to greater heights in the next coupld of rounds, and perhaps see him lift the Heineken Cup before he retires at the end of the season. That would indeed be a fitting end to the great man's career. Allez Les Noirs!

See more photos from the game.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Saracens Demolish Leeds

After last week's debacle at the Millennium Stadium, Sarries fans were looking for a decent performance from their team for the visit of Premiership whipping boys, Leeds. They have won a couple of games, but are basically deep in relegation territory and heading for the drop next season.

[Paul Gustard is tackled by the Leeds defence, but it doesn't make a lot of difference]

[Tom Ryder amid a sea of yellow jerseys, hangs onto the ball]

[left, Brent Russell is scragged by Kearnan Myall]. Saracens put some decent runs of play together. The midfield were running some good lines, and the tries kept coming. Eleven in all, for the Men In Black, and a consolation try for Leeds' Captain Stuart Hooper from an intercepted pass late in the game. Sarries put the norhterners to the sword to the tune of 66-7. And although Leeds have been beaten by most of the other sides in the Premiership this season, no-one has put that many points over them so far. At last, The Gaffers' words must be sinking in for Sarries.

The team and fans know that the team visiting next week, Wales' Ospreys, will be a different prospect and much harder to beat. But the win today must have given the boys a welcome confidence boost for the next crucial match. See more photos from the game.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Ospreys Humiliate Sarries

EDF Semi-Final 2 - Ospreys vs Saracens (30-3)

The second semi final was a painful thing to watch for the Saracens faithful, many of whom had travelled through sleet and snow in London to make their way to Cardiff for the game. I, for one, wondered why I'd bothered.

To be fair, the first half was pretty tight, with only Shane Williams' unconverted try and a penalty from James Hook giving the Ospreys an 8-0 advantage at the break. We also had a 10-minute spell of snow, leaving the supporters and players to rue the decision to leave the flaming roof open!

[Some idiot left the roof open... hadn't they heard the forecast for snow?]

I don't know who had done the team talk for Sarries at half time, but I think it was the same bloke who made the one against Newcastle just after Christmas! Please stop already!

[Kris Chesney goes for Mike Phillips in the loose, as the snow falls]

Basically, the floodgates opened. Sarries buckled and the Ospreys made light work of scoring 3 tries and a total of 22 points to Sarries' 3! NOT a good day at the office for the Men In Black, nor their supporters who trudged back to their buses in a dejected manner for the return trip down the M4. [right] Osprey Jonathan Thomas dominant in the lineout, just as the rest of his team were dominant elsewhere on the pitch.

The Ospreys are due at Vicarage Road in a fortnight for the Heineken Cup Quarterfinal against Saracens. Let's hope they don't get such an easy ride next time!

Two casualties of the game were Osprey Mike Phillips who sustained a cruciate knee ligament injury and will be out for up to six months. And Sarries' Kiwi Lock Chris Jack who's hand injury rules him out for the rest of the season. He will certainly be missed, on and off the pitch.

The Ospreys are now set for their EDF Final against the Tigers. And Sarries fans are praying The Gaffer can undo the damage to morale for the team. See more match photos from the game.

Semi Detatched

EDF Semi-Final 1 - Leicester Tigers vs London Wasps (34-24)

As a neutral watching the game, it was a very entertaining 80 minutes, with the lead changing hands several times, often against the run of play.

I had travelled to the Millennium Stadium with the Saraacens supporters. We had seats in the East stand, about 4 rows back. Good in theory, but pretty bad for the first 40 minutes on a sunny afternoon with the roof open - couldn't see a thing with the sun straight in our eyes. Eventually it dipped below the stadium roof, and I was able to get some half-decent photos. Paul Sackey scored a great try in the first half, and the teams went in 13-12 at half time.

[Paul Sackey is enveloped by Andy Goode and Harry Ellis, looking sharp for the Leicester defence]

Things opened up a little in the second half, with the Tigers putting more points on the board than Wasps. Sackey managed another touchdown in the second half, along with team mate Danny Cipriani. Whilst for the Tigers, Seru Rabeni, Dan Hipkiss and Martin Castrogiovanni all crossed. No-one was more surprised than the Prop himself, when Castrogiovanni found himself in space, ball in hand and the line 20m away. He lumbered forward and no-one was at home to defend. He did the most exuberant belly-flop to get his try that I've ever witnessed. Didn't realised Props bounce quite that well!

[Martin Castrogiovanni belly-flops his way to a try]

In the end, Leicester were the deserved winners, and will go into the final with confidence after that performance. See more match photos from the game.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Grand Slam For Wales

Six Nations Game 15 - Wales vs France (29-12)

Wales made their intentions clear from the start, and were pressing the French lines within five minutes. Then their opponents killed the ball, and James Hook [right] stepped up to take the penatly. First blood to the Welsh, 3-0. Hook had another go at goal in the 14th minute, which saile just wide of the posts.

The French were committing a lot of players to rucks, while Wales only used the minimum. David Skrela's kicking was pretty awful too - including one restart which actually went backwards!

The Welsh made a break in the 18th minute and Les Bleus found themselves offside. Hook stepped up for another punt which went plumb through the middle, 6-0 up.

In the next minute, Wales themselves were penalised, France took the penalty by Jean-Baptiste Elissalde, and they were back in it at 6-3. They gave it away again a few minutes later when Julien Bonnaire was caught monumentally offside at a ruck, Hook made it 9-3.

On the half hour, France made decent inroads into the Welsh half. They recycled several times, inching their way upfield. 10,000 French supporters chanted "Allez Les Bleus!" but they couldn't turn possession into points.

Just before half time, Gavin Henson [left] was pinged for a high tackle on Fulgence Ouedraogo and went to the bin. The penalty kick from Elissalde was easy, and so Wales went in 9-6 at the break, but with the prospect of starting the second half with only 14 men.

The French came out with all guns blazing, but tried to play too much rugby. They gave away a penalty very close to their own line. Hook took the kick from out wide; it wasn't quite on target.

Then Les Bleus were making ground again, but ferocious Welsh tackling kept their line firm. Gethin Jenkins clashed heads with a Frenchman and France won another penalty - Elisslade levelled the score at 9-9.

Henson returned a minute or tow later, much to the relief of the crowd. The Welsh were desperate for some possession in order to make headway. Shane Williams broke away, passed to Martyn Williams and worked upfield. France regained after a Welsh chip ahead.

In the 60th minute, the stadium erupted when France spilled the ball, and Shane Williams fell onto the ball just under the posts. It was his 41st try for Wales, making him the all-time try scorer for his country. The conversion by Stephen Jones [left] was a foregone conclusion - and Wales were 16-9 up.

The Welsh were fired up now, three minutes later they won a penalty 37m out from the posts. Jones' kick was good again and Wales were 19-9 up.

France's Vincent Clerc made a break and the Welsh fumbled their defence. France got the put in at a 10m scrum. But the Welsh forwards weren't buckling - they won the scrum against the head.

With almost 10 minute left, Wales gave away another penalty; Dmitri Yachvili on as a replacement, kicked the three points and it was 19-12. Not long after, Stephen Jones eroded the difference again with another penalty and Wales clawed back their 10 point advantage, 22-12.

The final nail in the French coffin came with only 5 minutes left on the clock. Mark Jones broke away and flew up the pitch to within 1m of the French line. France scrambled the defence, a bit of ping-pong, then Lee Byrne caught a phenomenal up-and-under. Martyn Williams [right] did the honours with a 20m run to slide under the posts. Stephen Jones conversion were a formality. Wales 29-12.

The last three minutes were filled with noise from their supporters. A well-deserved victory for Wales, and a great achievement to win the Grand Slam again. They have played some excellent rugby throughout the tournament and fully deserve their title. Remarkably, they only conceded 2 tries in their 5 matches this year. And what a turnaround from their lacklustre World Cup campaign a few months ago.

The ref blew up for full time and the stadium roof almost lifted off with the noise. Well done Wales.