Saracens are swapping Watford for Cape Town this week, enjoying a warm-weather mini-break before returning home for their Heineken Cup pool game game against Biarritz. Their brief spell in the sun will feel even more pleasurable after this result, regardless of the slightly mixed quality of the contest. A half-time altercation in the tunnel, which momentarily threatened to kick off in earnest, was perhaps the abiding memory of the much-hyped 2,000th Premiership game.
Both sides dismissed the pushing and shoving, which appeared to be prompted by a disagreement between the Bath coach Brad Davis and a member of Saracens' coaching staff. The home side were unimpressed by Davis's proximity to the touchline and frequent attempts to converse with the match officials but Bath's forwards coach, Martin Haag, insisted it was simply all part and parcel of the modern game. "Everyone's passionate about their clubs winning, coaches included," said Haag. "Rugby's a great sport and you give everyone a hug at the end. I saw more handbags on the field than I did at half-time."
The cramped tunnel environment and the ramshackle facilities in the crumbling empty stand at Vicarage Road scarcely helped but English club rugby should be attempting to win new friends rather than risk further complaints about declining behavioural standards. By the time the 3,000th Premiership game comes around, it would be nice if Saracens and Bath, to name but two, are finally playing in grounds which reflect a go-ahead professional sport.
There was at least one positive news story to balance things out, the former England captain Steve Borthwick capping another sterling display with a try against his old club. Given the shortage of fit, experienced locks at the disposal of the England caretaker coach, Stuart Lancaster, a Test return for his fellow Cumbrian at some stage this year would not be a complete surprise. "From what I know Steve will never give up on international rugby," confirmed his director of rugby, Mark McCall. "If his country were to call he'd be delighted to play again. He's been outstanding all season yet his is the only name not mentioned, which seems bizarre. If Stuart wants some old heads around to help the young guys, he could do a lot worse than Steve."
Lancaster, either way, will also receive positive feedback on the form of David Strettle and Charlie Hodgson, both of whom could yet feature in the England XV against Scotland at Murrayfield when the Six Nations Championship commences next month. The 32-man senior squad, to be named in Leeds on Wednesday, is also set to include Owen Farrell, although the 20-year-old centre was slightly below par on this occasion. He missed four penalty efforts, two of them bouncing away off the uprights, which helped keep Bath in the contest longer than seemed likely early in the third quarter.
The visitors, however, left aggrieved that their bright start, which included a smart seventh-minute try for Stephen Donald, was not further rewarded with a penalty try when Rhys Gill was sin-binned with Saracens' scrum buckling on its own line. "On another day we'd have been 14-0 up," said Haag, admitting the scrums had subsequently "disintegrated into a bit of a farce". It was certainly a forgettable day for the England prop Matt Stevens, who lasted only 30 minutes before departing with a rib problem. If the soothing summer breezes of southern Africa fail to ensure a swift recovery, it could yet be another fitness issue for the national selectors.
Bath, who remain stuck in 10th position, will also hope the dazed Donald returns soon, the All Black fly-half having been led away four minutes into the second half looking visibly the worse for wear. "He was seeing 45 Saracens so we thought it was the best option," said Ian McGeechan, Bath's director of rugby. At least he has a promising replacement in the youthful Tom Heathcote, who ultimately earned his side a valuable bonus point with the game's final kick.
At no stage, though, did Bath look like probable winners. Saracens were content to box-kick and chase for large chunks of the first half but they defended hungrily and looked the more dangerous side when they did choose to move the ball wide. Borthwick's 19th-minute try, scored when his team were down to 14 men, was the product of good approach work from Alex Goode, and Chris Wyles's solo effort 11 minutes from time, courtesy of a dummy and a swerving run past Nick Abendanon, was well worth the price of a boarding pass to Cape Town. Saracens now sit just three points behind the leaders, Quins, and are nicely poised for the season's run-in, unless Lancaster ruins everything by recruiting two-thirds of their team for national service in February and March.
Saracens Goode; Strettle (Short, 71), Farrell, Barritt, Wyles; Hodgson (Powell, 71), Spencer (Stringer, 54); Gill (George, 67), Smit, Stevens (Nieto, 30; Du Plessis, 78), Borthwick (capt; Kruis, 71), Botha, Wray, Saull, Joubert (Melck, 54).
Tries Borthwick, Wyles. Con Farrell 2. Pens Farrell 4.
Sin-bin Gill 17.
Bath Abendanon; Woodburn, Carraro, Banahan, Biggs; Donald (Heathcote, 44), Claassens; Catt (Beech, 51), Batty (Dixon, 64), Perenise (Wilson, 51), Attwood, Caldwell, Beattie (Skirving, 55), Louw (capt), Taylor.
Try Donald. Con Donald. Pens Donald, Heathcote 2.
Referee P Gauzere (France). Attendance 5,799.
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