Brits and Johnston on target to see off Exeter Chiefs
17:24 23 February 2014
2014 Getty Images
Premiership: Saracens 23 London Irish 10
Saracens beat Exeter Chiefs to celebrate Allianz Park’s first birthday in familiar style - with a Premiership victory on the artificial turf.
Since they moved into their permanent home, all but their previous home contest in the league had ended in triumph. That defeat to London Irish saw them concede a place at the summit that had been theirs all campaign and there they must stay for now after leaders Northampton beat Newcastle to remain one point clear.
It was by no means a vintage victory that marked Sarries’ first anniversary in north London, especially for a side who had averaged 35.8 points at their fortress during the last 12 months, but James Johnston’s first league score for the club cancelled out Ian Whitten’s opener after a bright start for Exeter Chiefs.
Schalk Brits crashed over in the second half as the hosts grew in dominance, while Charlie Hodgson added another 13 points to ever-impressive career tally.
Chiefs were quick out of the blocks, blasting holes through the Sarries defence until, on nine minutes, the hosts were found wanting by the corner flag when Whitten zipped over before four defenders could touch him.
Gareth Steenson added the extras and they could have piled on more points, especially when Fetu’u Vainikolo bulldozed through the centre of the pitch. Saracens managed to scramble back to cut out the danger and they grew in stature from there.
They spent the second 20 minutes battering away at Exeter’s rearguard but rarely venturing past the 22-metre line due to either poor handling or incredibly stiff resistance from the visitors.
Hodgson missed a penalty chance to reduce the arrears, although it was an adventurous effort from inside his own half, while Chris Wyles saw the glimmer of a try-scoring chance go begging when the final pass was just fractionally behind him and Dave Lewis steamed in with a tackle.
But there was no stopping 22-stone prop Johnston five minutes from the break with a short-range pick and go, aided by Mouritz Botha, that four Chiefs tacklers couldn’t halt. Hodgson converted and the two sides went into the changing rooms at seven apiece.
After the restart Steenson put the south-west side briefly back in the lead with a penalty goal but Sarries unearthed their trademark lineout drive and, after a huge shove, even by their standards, Brits supplied the finish and Hodgson widened the deficit with a well-taken conversion.
There was a lengthy delay soon after when Botha took a blow to the head in contact and was taken from the pitch on a stretcher, though he was concious and could wave to the crowd as he departed.
Hodgson slotted two penalties to put Sarries comfortably more than a score in front, but, still trying to keep alive their outside hopes of a play-off spot, the Chiefs pushed the hosts back. However, unlike at Sandy Park earlier in the season, it was relatively comfortable for the Men in Black even after Jacques Burger’s high tackle saw the flanker’s afternoon end prematurely by spending the remainder of the match in the cooler.
The 14 men even added to their tally when Hodgson plugged his third penalty for a quiet end to the afternoon, a repeat of which will be more than welcome next week at Bath.
Saracens: Ransom, Ashton, Tomkins (Streather), Barritt (Bosch), Wyles, Hodgson, Wigglesworth (De Kock), Barrington, Brits (George), Johnston (Du Plessis), Kruis, Botha (Borthwick), Wray, Brown (Burger), Joubert
Unused replacements: Auterac
Referee: Wayne Barnes