Saracens are beaten by Bath but Itoje's return provides a silver lining
PUBLISHED: 13:07 05 December 2016 | UPDATED: 13:07 05 December 2016
PA Wire/PA Images
Saracens were dealt only their second defeat of the Premiership campaign on Saturday as Bath put in a strong defensive display to overcome the league leaders and stop them from opening up some breathing space at the summit.
Bath went into the game in third place and the significance of the fixture typified the nature of the two teams’ approach.
It was a tight, low-scoring affair, with the hosts triumphing 14-11 – and Sarries could have levelled the game if fly-half Alex Lozowski had slotted over a 54-metre penalty in the dying stages.
But it was not to be and a try apiece, coupled with a series of three-pointers, left the Hendon-based club ruing what could have been – particularly after their slow start.
Mark McCall’s side did at least secure a losing bonus point – and Sarries’ director of rugby will also have been pleased with the performance of the returning England lock Maro Itoje, who had been injured in the Champions Cup clash against the Scarlets earlier in the season and endured a spell on the sidelines.
Itoje was the bright spark in a powerhouse pack that didn’t quite reach its full potential. Despite his absence in recent weeks, the lock forward looked like he had never been away, and he immediately returned to the brilliance he has displayed in all competitions this campaign.
The 22-year-old’s steadfast and bullish athleticism left the Bath defenders scratching their heads, particularly from Sarries’ first-phase play, and the visitors regularly got the ball over the advantage line, although the outcome proved fruitless more often than not.
There were still glimpses of brilliance though, especially when scrum-half Ben Spencer combined with Sean Maitland to send the wing over the whitewash for his second Premiership try of the season.
Yet, while Itoje did his best to inject the kind of intensity that has been so synonomous with Saracens, repeated errors gave Bath time on the ball and territory.
McCall’s men were a rejuvenated side in the second half but, like in the first period, they were unable to find the foothold needed to dent Bath’s solid resistance.
Itoje carried well in attack, providing a platform for his team, but a drop goal was the only points Sarries mustered in the second half.
With Wasps winning away at Worcester, Saracens’ lead at the top has been reduced to one point – and they now take a break from league action as they prepare to take on Sale Sharks in back-to-back Champions Cup clashes.
The north Londoners already have a comfortable lead over second-placed Toulon in Pool 3, and good results against Sale – who have lost both of their opening two games in the competition - could ensure Sarries have the best possible route into the knockout stages.
Sale gave Saracens a whole host of problems when they met at the AJ Bell Stadium in the Premiership earlier this term, but the Londoners showed their dark side – they were penalised heavily for ill discipline yet still emerged victorious.
Sale should probably have beaten Toulon in their last European clash, and they will be looking for redemption in the next fortnight.
But Itoje’s impressive return has only improved Sarries’ chances of retaining their continental title – and McCall will want his main man to target the breakdown area, where Sale have had great success so far in the competition.
Follow me on Twitter @AaronTillyer