Tuesday 20 March 2018

Free-scoring Saracens strike home again

Saracens 30
Racing Metro 13

Michael Aylwin at Stade Roi Baudouin

If Saracens can ever establish themselves in a fortress of a home they will be quite a side.

Because on the road -- even when the road is home -- they continue to rack up the wins. Here they comprehensively beat a Racing Metro side who lose nothing as a physical proposition against any of their famously physical opponents in the Top 14. Their only regret will be that they could not claim a bonus point for such a comfortable win, but their plans were spoilt by one of those unannounced 10 minutes of brilliance by the French between the 60th and 70th minute. They came through that examination, though, and spent the final minutes as they had the rest -- in possession and looking comfortable in it. They look the best challenger England have in this competition.

When every game is an away game it breeds a certain spirit, if nothing else. Saracens have clearly had that for some time, their bonding trips to such places as Brighton and the Oktoberfest have passed, if not quite into legend then at least into the handbook for fostering a certain je ne sais quoi among a professional rugby corps.

Sarries split opinion, although not necessarily down the middle. It is a healthy majority who complain about their perceived lack of ambition on the field -- for all the radical envelope pushing vis-a-vis the location of the field -- but it is forgotten how easily they can push the try-scoring button.

They returned from one of their bonding trips a couple of years ago and dazzled the Premiership with their transformation from dullards to try-scoring cavaliers. They carried themselves to the title a year later on just such a wave of whitewashing crossing, and for all the grief they have suffered this season it should be noted that they are one of only a few teams in Europe to have put 40 past opponents twice already.

The common denominator is Charlie Hodgson. So far this season, when he plays Saracens score. England may not be delighted to see Owen Farrell shifted to outside-centre, as he was here, to accommodate him, but Saracens know who the best outhalf in the Premiership is at the moment and are only too delighted to play him. There was no try shyness about them, so many miles from home. Racing, flush from their win over Munster last week, did not spare them with a team full of second-stringers -- as the French so often do when playing away from home -- and, indeed, they had Saracens under pressure at scrum time.

But with ball in hand there was only one team in it. After Olly Barkley, Racing's medical joker, and Hodgson had exchanged penalties, Saracens scored the first try at the start of the second quarter. Hodgson is not the only playmaker. There's Farrell, Alex Goode's flashing hands and feet featured more than a few times, and then there's the unlikeliest of them all, the hooker, Schalk Brits. He burst on to a pass from another of them, Brad Barritt, and was past the monumental Karim Ghezal with ease, turning the ball inside for Chris Wyles to score on his 100th game for the club.

Having won a penalty advantage at a scrum soon after, Racing were entitled to ask of referee Nigel Owens where it had gone after Juan Hernandez's chip to the in-goal area escaped the chasing Benjamin Fall. And straight away Saracens were on the attack themselves, a sweeping, up-tempo affair, featuring Hodgson as ball-carrier this time, which ended with Steve Borthwick crashing through the half-tackle of Barkley for Saracens' second. Hodgson's second penalty a few minutes before the break gave the 'home' side a 20-3 lead at half-time.

The French chose for some reason to start playing only after their squandering of 60 minutes of nothing and the offering up of a 20-point lead. Then they burst into life. Two flashes of genius from Hernandez set Juan Imhoff streaking clear. More importantly, they looked several inches taller all of a sudden. But they rode it out. An imperious half-break by Hodgson put Will Fraser over for Saracens' third. They chased the fourth, but time ran out.


Scorers -- Saracens: Borthwick, Fraser, Wyles try each; Hodgson 3 pens, 3 cons Racing Metro: Imhoff try; Barkley, Germain pen each; Estebanez con

Saracens: A Goode; C Ashton, O Farrell (J Tomkins 69), B Barritt, C Wyles (D Strettle 59); C Hodgson, N de Kock (R Wigglesworth 51); R Gill (M Vunipola 41), S Brits (Smit 55), M Stevens (C Nieto 60), S Borthwick (capt), M Botha (A Hargreaves 53), K Brown (A Saull 64), W Fraser, J Wray.

Racing Metro: JM Hernandez; B Fall (J Jane 60), M Bergamasco, F Estebanez, J Imhoff; O Barkley (G Germain 41), M Machenaud; A lo Cicero (Ben Arous 48), D Szarzewski (B Noirot 57), L Ducalcon (JP Orlandi 63), K Ghezal, F van der Merwe (F Metz 41), A Battut, B le Roux (M Matadigo 50), J Cronje (capt).

Referee: N Owens (Wales)

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