Saracens take bite out of Sharks in historic clash
18:51 25 January 2014
Sanlam Private Investments Shield: Saracens 23 Sharks 15
Saracens withheld a spirited Sharks fightback to claim bragging rights in a historic northern versus southern hemisphere club clash that gave the visiting South Africans a real taste of English winter should they ever be tempted to redraw their battle lines.
On a wider scale, the fiercely fought contest – which was appetising enough to command a television audience – may yet prove a watershed moment.
Certainly, Sarries chairman Nigel Wray in his programme notes, reiterated his view that South African clubs will “in due course” join a competition with the home nations and France.
And before the match Sharks director of rugby Jake White had admitted of the fixture, “maybe this is a sign of things to come”. Indeed it would eliminate the time-zone sacrifice Rainbow Nation sides currently make in travelling to face Australian and New Zealand outfits in Super Rugby.
Saracens showed Sharks just what regular competition against a Premiership side could entail if there ever was to be the shake-up that some see as inevitable.
Though it was a first run-out for the Currie Cup champions, in preparation for their Super XV campaign, the visitors looked shocked with the force they found themselves against in a first half played in positively balmy January conditions.
David Strettle scored a contentious try and Charlie Hodgson bagged an intercept score to add to his 13 points with the boot and it was no more than the Premiership leaders had deserved.
The Londoners had famously beaten the then world champion Springboks by a single point at Wembley in 2009 but this will serve as a far more important measure of their progress and potential. They were able to name a strong line-up despite eight men absent on England and Saxons duty, plus a forthcoming LV= Cup game at home to Newcastle Falcons 24 hours later.
The hosts scored all but three of their points before half time and completely outmuscled Sharks in the forwards with lock Mouritz Botha, flanker Jacques Burger and Richard Barrington all excelling.
In fact, a year ago today the prop was coming off the bench as a Jersey player for a seven minute Championship cameo against Rotherham and today at Allianz Park he was lining up against the man they call ‘The Beast’ – 53-cap Springbok front row Tendai Mtawarira. He equipped himself with aplomb to show that Sarries may have unearthed a gem.
The second half saw Sharks shake off the ring rust and score twice through Andre Esterhuizen and Heimar Williams but Saracens did enough to hold them off as rain teemed down to spark a mass exodus from the stands.
The 9,298 crowd had contained a sizeable and vociferous South African support and they saw the Sharks take the lead early in the match through a Tim Swiel penalty before Hodgson’s kicking woes began where they left off last week - where the fly-half missed eight shots at goal in a 64-6 Heineken Cup win over Connacht.
But the Premiership’s all-time leading points scorer adjusted his radar moments later and from there never fluffed his lines, notching two penalties to give his side a lead they never relinquished.
The Saracens’ pack took no stock in the idea that this was supposed to be a friendly contest, putting Sharks under considerable pressure, while Burger somehow found a new ferocity in his tackling.
Persistent Sharks infringing saw Etienne Oosthuizen suffer the consequences but he hadn’t managed to fully depart the pitch for his spell in the sin-bin before Hodgson’s quick tap set Strettle free. Referee Tim Wigglesworth appeared to have called for time off the clock so the Durban side were caught flat-footed as the winger dotted down without a finger touching him, to add to the hat-trick he scored last week against Connacht. Hodgson added the extras and before long the away side were down to 13 men when Pieter-Steph Du Toit was sent to the cooler.
After half an hour spent on the back foot, Sharks thought they’d breached Sarries’ rearguard for the first time until Mr Wigglesworth stopped play with Hodgson lying motionless on the artificial turf, much to the chagrin of the South African contingent in the crowd.
But they could have no qualms about Saracens’ second score on the stroke of half time as Hodgson intercepted a decidedly undercooked pass from Swiel and raced clear between the posts from 20 metres out, extending the lead to 20-3 with the conversion. The second half brought a lengthy pause in play while an injured Lwazi Mvovo was attended to and then stretchered off and it served to halt any momentum Saracens had hoped to continue from the first 40 minutes.
Instead, relentless pressure saw Matt Stevens yellow carded and Sharks made the numerical advantage pay. A great initial break by Tera Mtemba had Saracens defending on the turn and created an overlap for Esterhuizen to supply the finish. Williams added another in the corner after some brutish rucking within spitting distance of the chalk but Swiel missed the conversion, having nailed the first, and it left enough daylight on the scoreboard for Saracens to manage the game to its conclusion as the heavens opened.
A huge penalty into the wind from Hodgson just crept over to put the Londoners eight points ahead and the weather ensured a disrupted, error-strewn finish to a fixture that could yet be a sign of things to come.
Saracens: Wyles, Short, Tagicakibau, Bosch, Strettle, Hodgson, De Kock, Barrington, Brits, Stevens, Borthwick, Botha, Melck, Burger, Joubert.
Replacements: Spurling, Auterac, Du Plessis, Jubb, Kikutani, Wigglesworth, Taylor, Stanley