Friday 27 April 2018

Winning debut for Stringer

Saracens 31 Ospreys 26

Peter Stringer: debut
Peter Stringer: debut

Michael Aylwin at Wembley

Pool 5 is the tightest of four-way struggles, and if this game is anything to go by, there will be a few more twists and turns of the tourniquet yet.

Let's hope they are half as enjoyable. It had seemed a bonus point might elude the Ospreys, when they conceded a penalty at the soft five-metre scrum they had coughed up in the final 10 minutes, but they responded immediately by charging down Owen Farrell's clearance from the restart.

Saracens -- who brought on new arrival Peter Stringer as a second-half replacement -- coughed up a penalty for holding on, and Dan Biggar's successful conversion of it secured the crucial bonus point that maintains the general tautness.

Saracens took the win, equally deserved, to maintain the pace at the top of the group, but any slips now, from any side, will be costly now that Treviso have rejoined the party with their win over Biarritz.

The Ospreys looked as if they could have gone on longer, but they were caught in something of a storm early on in the game, and it was a storm they weathered admirably.

Saracens have been unconvincing of late, but they exploded into this one. The Ospreys struggled to hold them at the set-piece, but it was the facility with which they swung the ball, with Charlie Hodgson at outhalf, that really impressed.

A Hodgson cut-out pass in the third minute launched Chris Wyles at the line, and when he was tackled into touch Saracens pinched the Ospreys' lineout. Moments later, Rhys Gill was driving over by the posts for the game's first try.

And it was rapidly turning into a game that deserved its tries. Both sides were willing to move the ball, but Ospreys first meaningful foray resulted in a try, 10 minutes after Saracens'. Ashley Beck was the architect and finisher, his neat chip freeing Tommy Bowe. When Bowe's pass was deflected to the floor, Beck streaked clear.

The Ospreys looked confident of troubling Saracens, if only they could get their hands on the ball, but then came a cruel turning point. The lively Shane Williams had been freed from his own 22 but was called back due to an alleged forward pass. It was an incorrect call, but from the resultant scrum Ernst Joubert powered through the weak tackle of Tom Smith, and Saracens had a 17-10 lead. Barely 15 minutes had elapsed.

The rest of the half belonged to Sarries with two Owen Farrell penalties stretching the lead at the break to 23-13. The last one was built upon the yellow shown to Smith for hitting a Saracens maul from the side.

Yellow cards were to play a crucial part in the third quarter. Saracens worked their third try just as Smith's exile was ticking down to its end, Schalk Brits' inside ball sending Wyles over for a fine score, and the game seemed put to bed.

Farrell missed the conversion, but then his next sin was worse, taking out Biggar after the latter's chip. Ospreys used the extra man well, just as Farrell's time in the bin was about to expire, working the game's next excellent try, scored by Beck down the blindside off the impressive Richard Fussell's break. Biggar landed a tricky conversion, and suddenly the Ospreys were within five points. Now it was their turn to look the confident "home" team.

Yet they managed to gift Saracens an attacking scrum, when Biggar flung out a pass to Andrew Bishop, who slipped between the posts, forcing Jonathan Thomas to kick the ball dead. The Ospreys just couldn't please the referee at scrum time, and here they were penalised again by a late Farrell penalty, which took them out of bonus-point range. Rhys Webb's charge-down from the restart set up the even-later penalty, and losing bonus-point, that maintains the tension in Pool 5.


Scorers -- Saracens: Gill, Joubert, Wyles tries, Farrell 4 pens, 2 cons Ospreys: Beck 2 tries, Biggar 4 pens, 2 cons.

Saracens: A Goode; D Strettle, O Farrell, B Barritt, C Wyles; C Hodgson (J Short 59), B Spencer (P Stringer 59); R Gill (D Carstens 73), S Brits (J George 49), M Stevens (C Nieto 65), S Borthwick (capt), M Botha (G Kruis 58), K Brown, J Burger (A Saull 65), E Joubert.

Ospreys: R Fussell; T Bowe, A Bishop, A Beck, S Williams; D Biggar, R Webb; D Jones (R Bevington 48), R Hibbard (H Bennett 48), A Jones, R Jones, J Thomas, T Smith (capt) (I Gough 53), J Tipuric, J Bearman (G Stowers 58).

Referee: P Gauzere (France).

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