Saracens 19-20 London Irish (27th December 2005)

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Saracens 19-20 London Irish (27th December 2005)

by OxonRob on Wed Dec 28, 2005 2:27 am

Saracens struck down by the Curse of the Irish
By OxonRob

I was tempted to headline this report “The greatest conversion since St Paul” but Bill McLaren made that one his own 35 years ago when John Taylor kicked a match-winning penalty from about the same spot on a different pitch, with one of those heavy water-sodden bladders that used to be called rugby balls.

The scoreboard read 19-17 for the last two minutes of this match, the first time in eighty minutes of rugby that Saracens had actually been ahead of London Irish. As 120 seconds dripped away and we attempted to salvage an apparently lost cause, there cannot have been a single London Irish supporter who wasn’t reflecting on the frequency with we used, in former times, to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

Then, wonder of wonders, a penalty kick was awarded to the exhausted Exiles.

The numerals on the RFU’s shiny new time-left-to-play clock stood at 00.00. Not a heart beat anywhere in the ground as Barry Everitt lined up the final kick of the match from the Saracens ten metre line, wide out to the Irish right.

Saracens supporters feared the worst. The many hundreds of London Irish supporters also feared the worst. After all, this one was on the ‘wrong’ side of the pitch for a right-footed kicker.

From somewhere in the ground a grand chorus of booing and whistling broke out, then shamefacedly died away as Barry’s slow-motion ballet commenced. From the start we all knew that the ball had the legs. However, with a sideways view of the proceedings we could only guess at its direction. Ten thousand white faces watched the touch judges. Slowly, oh so slowly, up went their flags.

19-20. A win for London Irish, for Mr Barnes blew his whistle immediately and the London Irish players went berserk with joy. In the stands there was general disbelief on all sides, weary acceptance from Sarries, incredulous but fairly humble happiness from the green-clad warriors. The Curse of the Irish at Vicarage Road had caught Saracens on the hop yet again. Our hosts had no more than a losing bonus point to show for their efforts.

So, how did this come about? Who knows? The back left corner of the Lower Rous Stand isn’t the best place in which to make notes. There are no lights!

Thud and Blunder

Image (photos by cormac)

My abiding memory of this game will be of unending kicks ahead, up-and-unders, free kicks, penalties, scrums and line-outs, interspersed with what seemed to me to be any number of body checks masquerading as tackles, not to mention one or two late tackles. I have little doubt that we were as guilty of these as anyone, but, curiously, I can recall only one of these offences perpetrated by a London Irish player. Nor do I recall one of them being punished. It must be my age.

This match was a scrappy affair from which Brian Smith can only have learnt more about the guts of the men under his command. There was very little of the tactical or the strategic on display.

Forward heroes

Image (photos by cormac)

The Irish forwards created the basis of victory with a display of contact rugby which I shall long remember and savour. They constantly put their bodies on the line, but they did so intelligently. Performance of break-down basics is improving all the time, even if Mr Barnes did not entirely agree (and also seemed not to appreciate the speed of our rush defence, incorrectly whistled on two of the four occasions on which I had a clear side-on view.)

Messrs Hatley, Coetzee and Rautenbach quickly established ascendancy in the front row, an ascendancy that was only threatened when Russell and Wheatley came on in the second half. (I thought Dougie was enjoying a Cape Town summer.) They all took knocks, but shrugged them off as annoying interruptions.

Scrums and line-outs were bossed with ferocity and efficiency, even though only some of our rolling mauls came off. Sarries seemed to be splitting the advancing horde of white and green, reducing our eight to three or four on a number of occasions. However they also got pinged for pulling down several mauls, so didn’t have things entirely their own way.

Casey, Roche (and his replacement Strudwick) all played with fire and vigour in the engine room, and Leguizamon, Danaher and Gustard in particular were totally committed in their tackling. Leguizamon drove well with the ball throughout, but somehow it all came to naught. Memories of Phil Murphy in his first season with us.

Behind them Hodgson snapped like the angry terrier he is. He tackled like a man three times his size, he kicked cleverly by and large, and he served his fly half well. He certainly shaded his opposite number, Mr Dickens. However, Dodge suffered what looked like knee damage late in the game. Despite replacement Darren Edwards playing with encouraging verve, I think we’ll need the terrier in the next couple of games. Let’s hope that he’s not too badly injured.

This may sound like one way traffic. It was anything but. The Saracens pack were outplayed in many of the technical areas, but they never gave up. They were in fact a bloody nuisance in the loose, none more so than the feted Ben Skirving at 8, who (I think) was the spark which touched off what looked like a 30 man demonstration of handbag throwing early in the second half.

Given the quantity and quality of London Irish possession, especially in the first half, very little was achieved at 10 and beyond. On a bitterly cold afternoon featuring occasional snow flurries and a biting north easter, neither side could be blamed for making the handling errors which abounded throughout. Nonetheless, the ball was too often kicked ahead, and not always well. Alternatively, it seemed, it was rushed into contact with indecent haste by both sets of backs, but particularly by Irish. There was a worrying lack of creativity in the Exiles midfield, and a useful-looking back three of Armitage, Bishop and Horak was given few chances to shine. If we wanted to play ten man rugby, why involve 12 and 13?

In part our troubles were due to an outstanding Sarries defence, and to their back row which refused to come second alongside their front five colleagues. But that wasn’t the whole picture. My notes on our threes say “stodgy” and I can’t improve on the instant sound bite.

Although they achieved little in terms of the score sheet, the Saracens backs always looked more dangerous with ball in hand, even if they usually managed to undo their good work with something stupid. Wings Bailey and Vaikona and full-back Scarborough genuinely set the pulses racing when they were on the ball.

Glimpses of the game

London Irish established their intent from their first touch of the ball. Casey took the Saracens kick-off, and called a rolling maul which advanced from our 22 right over the half way line. It was pulled down on the Sarries 10 metre line. Penalty to LI.

0-3 after 1.5 minutes. Not bad, this!

Barry misses touch from the second kick-off, Irish blocking of Scarborough following up his return kick goes unchecked, and Barry then contrives to drop the ball for no good reason bar hypothermia. Three minutes in Sarries win a scrum and a penalty which they run and drop. This is a pattern we will see repeated.

Leguizamon kicks a beautiful touch kick to prove that donkeys are only large fly halves in the making, and Vaikona makes a run down his right wing through a number of non-tackles. However a Saracens up and under results in Irish possession with Leguizamon to the fore. Armitage completes the move with a lovely grubber which finishes up in-goal.

Irish are penalised, just inside the half but bang opposite the posts. Glen Jackson obliges.

3-3 after 8 minutes

Irish follow the kick-off with interest, and win a penalty which Everitt converts. Armitage is on the deck, however, having been body checked off the ball.

3-6 after 10 minutes

Leguizamon drops the kick-off on the Irish 22, but Sarries are penalised at the ensuing scrum. Everitt finds touch on half way and the line out turns into a rolling maul, which makes ground before delivering the ball down the line. Horak grubbers for the corner and makes a superb long-ish touch. Hatley, meanwhile, is receiving lengthy attention on the other side of the field. The Sarries line out in the corner is sufficiently well policed to become an Exiles one, but our attempted rolling maul coughs up the ball to the opposition!

In short, London Irish are looking dangerous, and most of the play is in the Sarries half. Horak, Hatley and Casey all shine in taking the ball up. From a scrum on the Saracens 22 Everitt puts through a deadly grubber kick over the line to the right. Horak is first there, for the touchdown. Everitt’s kick slides past the right post.

3-11 after 18 minutes

My notes say that Sarries are fighting back, but the score doesn’t suggest it just yet. A huge up-and-under by Horak is taken, but not marked, by Vaikona who is nailed in possession. The ball is re-cycled to Monsieur Barry le Drop, who drop kicks from the 22.

3-14 after 22 minutes

Leguizamon takes his umteenth kick-off and finds touch on half way. The Sarries throw is crooked, but from the Irish scrum Everitt runs it left, changes his mind, hesitates, runs back to the right, behind the traffic, and hoofs the ball straight into touch! Oh, Barry! This marks the start of a period of intense pressure by Sarries well inside the Irish half. Ignoring a huge forward pass (Well, Mr Barnes did) they run everything including a couple of penalties before Irish are penalised for a deliberate knock-on. Jackson converts.

6-14 after 27 minutes

Virtually from the kick off we get a penalty in the middle of the park, and Everitt attempts another goal. He pulls slightly to the left. Horak returns the 22 drop out as another speciality up-and-under and appears to be taken mid-air. No matter. Sarries riposte through the dynamic Scarborough who, like Vaikona, seems to need a lot of tackling to stop him.

Sarries have the initiative for much of the rest of the half, but with six minutes left Jackson misses a long penalty from the middle which he will later regret. We are reduced to spoiling, and spoiling big-time.

Hodgson of all people now has a couple of fumbles, and Jackson misses yet another penalty (for holding onto the ball carrier in the tackle) before managing to kick backwards to Vaikona!

With a minute left Irish are penalised again, this time for offside, and Armitage is left facing a ball carrier and a three man overlap. The Saracen’s pass goes five feet behind the recipient. A certain try averted.

Half Time

The arc lights are on, the sun makes a brief appearance, and we look messy. Wild hacks ahead combine unpleasantly with knock-ons. In the tight, however, we remain supreme, shoving the Sarries set scrum backwards so far that we turn over their possession.

A penalty on the opposition 22 offers Everitt the opportunity of further points on the board.

6-17 after three minutes

The kick off produces knock-ons galore from Irish, but we are still managing to drive hard around the fringes. A very strange set of contrasts, we are.

Then comes the 30 man bout of handbags about which the least said the better. Sarries 8 Skirving and Armitage go to the cooler.

Moments later Irish get a penalty on the half way line. Barry finds a very short touch, but to be fair some of the Sarries line kicking is nothing short of woeful right now, so enough of the bitchy comments.

Dodge seems to have done his knee some damage, and Edwards comes on instead nine minutes into the half. (He had a good game.)

Gussie appears to have been taken out somewhere, somehow. No one I know saw what happened, but yer man is on his knees and looking the worse for wear.

It’s mostly pressure from Saracens now, but they ruin their efforts with knock-ons and we clear the decks by means of two defensive penalties, taking play from under our posts to the Saracens 10 metre line. The subs are now coming on and off like a French lady’s underwear, and I am losing the plot, writing by feel. (You try it!)

Irish are putting in some huge tackles, and after 18 minutes Saracens bring on Bracken for Dickens at scrum half. Most of us smell trouble ahead. Yet another bout of handbags offers Sarries another go at the posts, which Jackson converts.

9-17 after 19 minutes

While we are doing most of the defending, and Saracens are piling on the pressure, Bish makes a break-out hack-ahead which he chases to the line in the company of Scarborough who edges past him just before play is called back for an earlier misdemeanour. Bishop’s move proves to be an aberration, for Sarries hare off down the middle shortly afterwards, Vaikona to the fore. I lost sight of play behind the spectators but gather that a substitute prop, Hamish Mitchell, got the touch-down. A likely story! Jackson converts. Where was our defence? I don’t know! Our tackles simply weren’t.

16-17 after 23 minutes

Huge pressure from Sarries and occasional ripostes by the Irish characterised the rest of the game. My notes are minimal due to the lack of light. Sorry!

However, I did note some odd decision-making. Penney took the ball and dropped it behind him. Knock-on! Armitage attempted a drop goal which hit the bar rather tamely and flopped to the deck below, where Scarborough scrabbled with it to bring it under control. Obviously anxious not to knock on, he tapped it back over the line, where he was then persuaded to touch down by the proximity of the Irish follow-up.

A 22 was awarded to Saracens instead of a scrum 5 to Irish. This decision might well have changed the outcome of the game.

With two minutes 16 seconds left on the clock Saracens were awarded a penalty in front of the Irish posts, which Jackson contrived not to miss.


We immediately attacked up the middle and out on the right, where we vigorously tried all sorts of things - but more in hope and desperation than in expectation.

The rest is history.

19-20 was the final score.


First half Saracens 6 London Irish 14

Second half Saracens 13 London Irish 6

Well, it’s a game of two halves, Brian, innit? Worrying though.

Saracens: D Scarborough, P Bailey, K Sorrell, B Johnston (rep: M Bartholomeusz 12-18 ), T Vaikona, G Jackson, A Dickens (rep: K Bracken, 59), K Yates, S Byrne (rep: M Cairns, 55), B Broster (rep: H Mitchell, 55), S Raiwaluni, K Chesney (rep: T Randell, 55), H Vyvyan (captain), B T Russell, B Skirving.

London Irish: M Horak, D Armitage, R Penney, N Mordt (rep: M Catt, 78 ), J Bishop, B Everitt, P Hodgson (rep: D Edwards, 65), N Hatley, D Coetzee (rep: R Russell, 55-78 )(rep: D Coetzee, 78 ), F Rautenbach (rep: D Wheatley, 58 ), B Casey (captain), K Roche (rep: R Strudwick, 68 ), P Gustard, D Danaher, J M Leguizamon (rep: P Murphy, 68 ).
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by Brian W on Wed Dec 28, 2005 2:50 am

Great report, Rob.

Agree mostly. Good effort from the front five (again) and superb tackling all over the field. Thought there were some bizarre free kicks today, but otherwise an ok reffing. Although not too easy to judge from the front of the south stand - but got a good view of the tries!

Hodgson may have had a couple of problems with ball in hand but he really defended fantastically. The covering tackle on Vaikona - one of several on him - deserved better! That said, i thought it was a good try; Vaikona really is a very good player.

Although we may have dominated for long periods, Sarries created two or three great try scoring opportunities (we created none really) Only a mixture of heroic defence and selfishness kept them out.

Great kick from Barry at the end; glad he's in one of my fantasy teams (shame about Farrell, though)! That reminds me, must do an update...
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by cormac on Wed Dec 28, 2005 11:45 am

Great report, Rob.

Those two decisions you mention infuriated me! The Penney "knock-on" (if it was the one catching a kick) was astounding, it went behind (and on a level with) his head, as he was facing forwards. It couldn't possibly have gone forward.

The drop-out from Delon's drop goal attempt was even worse, and could have given Sarries the bonus point. An attacking scrum to us, 5m out... what was he thinking?? Was there an Irish player nearby whom he thought could have knocked it over the line (in which case a Saracens scrum, surely?)
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by JamesC on Wed Dec 28, 2005 12:27 pm

did you think that the countdown clock possibly tarried too long at tge 12.07 min mark in the second half, after play had restarted. Further details in the other place.

Seems to have helped us at the end anyway so no cause for complaint 8)
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by dom_pedro on Wed Dec 28, 2005 12:32 pm

Just added a couple of cormac's photos to Robs report (and fixed the odd smilie sunglasses thing with an 8 followed by ). Many thanks to Rob and Cormac.
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by Mrs Chicken on Wed Dec 28, 2005 12:46 pm

I noticed that too, James. It was stuck on 12.07 for quite a while after play restarted.

I was checking the clock very closely because I was freezing cold and longed for 0:00 so I could head for the warmth of the car.
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by gabriel on Wed Dec 28, 2005 3:02 pm

Lovely report Rob, as ever.
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by GWaGG on Wed Dec 28, 2005 3:38 pm

Good report Robin!
Many thanks for the effort.
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