In a replay of the EDF Cup match a few weeks back, Saracens took on the Ospreys at Vicarage Road yesterday in the Heineken Cup quarterfinal.Now picture the scene… the Ospreys, basically the Welsh side that won the Grand Slam this year, with starts such as Gavin Henson, Shane Williams, James Hook, Justin Marshall, Duncan Jones etc roll into North London pumped up to repeat their 30-3 win of a few weeks back.
Vicarage Road had the sold out signs up in front of the ground since mid-week and the 18 000 seater was packed to the rafters.
Interestingly it was the first time in the club’s history that it has happened, with Saracens 12 years ago averaging less than 1 000 spectators a game!
But I digress and we shall return to the picture I was painting.
So London, and the entire UK for that matter, had a bitterly cold spell of icy Arctic weather which blew in towards Saturday evening and the snow was coming down in bucketloads. I had driven home at about 2am Sunday morning and there was still no sign of snow but when I awoke to make the journey through to Watford for the lunch-time kick-off North London and Hertfordshire was covered in a few inches of snow.
Glorious times for children but obviously not the ideal conditions in which to contest a game of this monumental importance.
What ensued was something I’d never before seen on a rugby pitch before, obviously hailing from the more temperate Cape Town climate. What happens when it snows is that the snow actually keeps the ground beneath quite warm like a…. well… like a blanket of snow…
So a few hours before kick-off out rolls a hovercraft onto the hallowed grounds of Vicarage Road and basically just blew all the snow away! Was surely one of the oddest things I’ve ever seen on a rugby pitch!
So onto the match itself. What a cracker!
Saracens took a leaf out of the Jake White/Clive Woodward “how to play rugby” book and put up a ferocious tackling display.
In the first half alone Saracens, lead by talisman Neil de Kock, put in an incredible 60 tackles to the Ospreys 30 odd.
And they weren’t just little tackles, many of them were the sort that would make Jake White wet himself with glee.
Losing both ex-internationals Brent Russel and Andy Farrell halfway through the first half to injury did little to stop the Men in Black from continuing their ascendancy.
While there was a fair amount of broken play running and what I thought was some bloody entertaining rugby, Sarries went into half-time only up 6-3 with two Glen Jackson penalties to the solitary James hook penalty.
There was also a slightly dubious premature ending to the first half by referee Alan Lewis.
On the stroke of half-time Saracens were camping on the Ospreys line and ref Alan Lewis seemingly held up his arm for offside against the Ospreys but played advantage. Lock Kris Chesney proceded to pick up the ball broke the line and ended up an inch or two short of the line with the ref then going to the TMO for a decision.
The try was not given (rightly so) and Lewis blew for the end of the half, despite the fact that advantage was being played for the Ospreys off-side and Saracens were still due a penalty.
It was not to matter as a remarkable piece of play happened in the first couple of minutes of the second half.
Ospreys had attacked heavily just after the kick-off and some frantic tackling and good work at the breakdown secured the ball. Neil de Kock attempted a clearance and an Ospreys player got a hand to it, which had the effect of slowing down the balls trajectory and sending it off-course.
As the entire Saracens backline were in front of the kicker at the time, this touch on the ball by the Ospreys player put them all back on-side and they gathered the kick with the Ospreys back three looking a bit confused.
Some quick thinking and passing the ball through the hands lead to Francisco Leonelli charging down the touchline, shrugging off a tackle and scoring in the corner.
Jackson converted and Sarries extended their lead to 13-3.
At this point, although not dead and buried, you did feel the Ospreys were fading.
In fact, in all honesty, they never really got into the game. They were outplayed in pretty much every facet of the game, losing the foot races, the collisions, the scrums and especially the breakdowns where old-timer Richard Hill was simply sublime.
It was a big lesson to the young Welsh backline players that grit and hard work often triumph over flair and innate arrogance.
The likes of de Kock, Jackson and Farrel, before he was injured, tackled all day long and closed down the likes of Henson and Williams simply had nowhere to run.
Williams, normally the elusive runner and one of the top wingers in world rugby was closed down each and every time by the slightly built sevens specialist Richard Houghton who cut him down time after time after time and himself proved to be an incredibly elusive runner often carving up the pitch ala Brent Russel style – straight through the middle!
Personally I haven’t seen many plaudits for him for his performance yesterday but my feeling was that he was absolutely superb. A truly exciting player to watch which is more down to his skill than to down to the fact that he is a little funny-looking for a rugby player, being quite skinny and a massive mop of curly black hair…
Mid-way through the second half and Liam Byrne earned himself a yellow card for a cynical knock-down that would’ve sealed the game for Saracens after he stopped a good move from ending in a try in the corner.
A good call from referee Alan Lewis but you couldn’t help thinking Saracens were still a bit hard done-by as they really should’ve had the try.
Not long after that an injury to Leonelli forced Saracens to bring on Fijian scrumhalf Moses Rauluni with de Kock moving to the wing to cover the hole left by the injury.
It was not to matter as the big men up front continued to grind an Ospreys side used to playing with flair but on this case not being allowed the necessary space to unleash the glory-boys.
With ten minutes left on the lock the Welshmen pushed and pushed and pushed for the Saracens line and were eventually rewarded with a try from replacement prop Paul James. With Hook slotting the conversion there was suddenly a game on again with 5 minutes to play.
My heart was in my throat as these are games Saracens have been known to lose form that position and, with the likes of Shane Williams and the rest of the Welsh backline still pottering around the park, you felt anything was possible.
But Sarries showed tremendous character just returning to the style of rugby that took them into the lead in the first place, grinding the Welshmen in the scrums and throwing everything at the breakdowns and rucks.
It paid dividends in the end as they manoeuvred into a position for the kiwi Glen Jackson to slot over a drop goal 2 minutes from time.
With nine points the difference and a minute on the clock the Vicarage Road faithful erupted with the game in the bag and a date with Munster booked in semi-final in three weeks time.
An experienced and ever-improving Saracens should give Munster a good go and, who knows, might be facing the winner of the Toulose/London Irish game in the Heineken Cup final.
Munster will be a challenge but so was were the Ospreys and yet the boys stood up and were counted.
For me there were several outstanding players in the Saracens side.
Cobus Visagie again showed why he is still one of the foremost tightheads in the game. The old-timer has slowed down slightly but he was immense in the scrums and key to driving them off the ball and keeping up the pressure on the Ospreys scrum.
Hugh Vyvyan, the Saracens lock, was seemingly all over and carrying the ball up on many occasions. All-in-all a really good game for the big lad.
Neil de Kock was immense. His tackles were superb and his leadership shun through on the pitch even when he had moved onto the wing. His passing was crisp, if at times a little hurried but a truly superb performance to build on his cracking season thus far.
Richard Hill. Wow. 34 years old and as good a performance as I’ve seen from an opensider. Turning over balls, making tackles, running with the ball, he seemed to do it all. A top class performance and a deserved winner of the MOTM award.
So Wasps in the Premiership await next week and Munster in the semi of the Heineken Cup two weeks after that. Two of the giants of the British game await a Saracens side brimming with confidence and a side that has matured nicely this season, showing the class of the underlying players and just having that air of confidence about them where you know they believe they can go all the way.
Just on an aside note, it was again disturbing to see the Welsh fans booing Jackson when he was kicking for posts. It wasn’t quite as pronounced as the Welsh fans were in the 6N but it truly is unsporting and disgusting behaviour. I have always seen the Welsh as knowledgeable, respectful fans and it is very disappointing to see fans behaving in this manner.
It might just be the few newcomer fans that Wales have picked up with their recent success under Gatland. If that’s the case then I truly hope the Springboks and New Zealand bury them in the Autumn internationals so that all these fringe supporters responsible for this abominable behaviour bugger off back to supporting the football code.
Such behaviour has no place on a rugby pitch and I’d happily deal out a few smacks if I saw fellow South African supporters behaving in a similar manner.Tweet