Monday, August 17, 2020

Bristol Bears-16 Saracens-12

If this is your first visit to these pages and you’re wondering what they’re all about, welcome to Harpin’ On Rugby.  Doing exactly what it says in the banner, we’re a Leinster & Ireland Rugby fansite that launched in 2008 (our 12th birthday is this coming Friday) which produces content on a daily basis such as media roundups, podcasts, opinions, banter, and our feature offering is a 2000-ish word writeup every Monday for a selected match from the previous weekend.

Now if you’re wondering why this writeup is about neither Leinster nor Ireland rugby, allow me to explain.  The COVID19 break that began for us at the beginning of March left us with a choice - shut the site down altogether until the rugby is back, or find innovative ways to keep the daily posts going.  We chose the latter with things like looking back over classic matches and judging the best-looking jerseys, but as the Irish rugby return got nearer, we switched to following the Blues from Super Rugby Aotearoa to re-hone our writing skills, such as they are.

NOW if you’re wondering why this writeup isn't about the Blues, you can blame Jacinda Ardern.  Well, I say blame only in jest - she of course deserves a lot of praise for the way she has handled the crisis, but her zero tolerance decision that led to the cancellation of the Auckland clash between the Blues and the already-crowned-champion Crusaders meant I had to look elsewhere for a target this weekend, and while I could have gone for a different Super Rugby match, Bristol v Saracens seemed the better bet as Leinster are due to play the reigning-double-winning/already-relegated outfit in September.

And finally, if you’re wondering why I have taken the trouble of scribbling four paragraphs of something billed as a “match writeup” about anything but the match in question, well, that’s because I’m stalling.  It was as boring as the most boring 0-0 draw the round ball game can offer, and if you tally the legally scored tries from the two teams on the day, it actually WAS a 0-0 draw.  As the full time whistle blew I was almost wishing I had been able to get up at 4am Sunday morning as originally planned!!!

Seriously though, there are plenty of caveats for the game being so easily forgetful.  The break was difficult for everyone and even though the NZ version of Super Rugby resumed with a bang, they did have full crowds cheering them on at the time as they did.  There was also the teeming Bristol rain that fell pretty much from start to finish, so I’ll hold off all the predictable “bosh” jokes about the Premiership and cut them some slack for this being less than a classic.

The first two minutes of play set the stall for the entire 80 minutes.  With Owen Farrell “not being risked” at outhalf, the duties fell to Alex Goode and his first move was to push through a territory-seeking kick into the Bristol 22, one which Charles Piutau wasn’t able to take without getting himself bundled into touch by the Saracens chasers.

It was certainly a perfect start by their attack but from the lineout they were met by a perfect set by the Bears defence.  They were gradually pushed back beyond the 22 until a jackle by Siale Piutau, who outshone both his brother Charles and fellow centre Semi Radradra despite their receiving most of the pre-match plaudits, won them a clearing penalty.

Such was the forward progress of both teams for the majority of the play.  They might work their way into a strong attacking position but in the end something like a bout of jackling, a lost lineout or occasionally a penalty won in a kickable area, would prevent a five-pointer.  In the first half it was probably Sarries who shaded it on technical points if not scoreboard ones, although had Goode kicked all of his chances they would have done that too.  In the end it was 6-6 at the break.

Of the many frustrating things about that 40 minutes of rugby, top of the list had to be reset scrums.  There was a sequence of three at the midpoint of the half where the ref actually had to say “stay up!!!” to the front rows before the ball emerged.  If only it were that simple all the time!!!

The second half began in the same vein, with more “kick tennis” thrown in for good measure and the teams traded further penalties to make it 9-9.  This is probably a good time to mention the former Leinster hooker Bryan Byrne who started for Bristol as he was substituted at the 45 minute mark.  He played his part in the strong home defending and they their front row had an edge in the scrums, but although not all the lost lineouts were down to his darts, a crucial attacking one towards the end of the first half certainly was, although his replacement Harry Thacker didn’t fare much better in this area, and shortly after his first wayward throw we finally had the game’s first debatable moment.

Wiggleworth’s clearance kick wasn’t the best and it fell around halfway to Bristol winger Luke Morahan, who proceeded to chart a path through the chasers and pick up speed all the way to the try line for what looked like a game-breaking score.  But it situations like this it’s normally worth a check with the TMO to find out how the line was broken so easily and it looked as though Thacker had adjusted his line into the path of Maro Itoje as Morahan went by them.

Two aspects up for debate there - first, did Thacker sell his body language well?  I honestly thought he did.  He definitely knew what he was doing but his path still managed to look natural and I actually didn’t think he altered his path that much.  But more importantly, while I know Itoje is far more than your average Premiership player, would even he have reached Morahan anyway?  I honestly thought he wouldn’t.

Yet the officials conferred and decided that Thacker had committed a foul, and Saracens seemed buoyed by the let off and they embarked on another decent spell in the opposition 22, one which included yet more penalties against the home side, and this brings me to another notable topic from the match.

The final penalty count was 17-10 with Bristol shipping more.  Yet the yellow card count was only 1-1 with a Sarries player going to the naughty step first as late as the 76th minute.  I know you can’t always draw a line from one set of stats to the other, but even with allowances made for players returning from a long break I really think the threat of a sin binning should be made a lot earlier.

In the end the Bears managed to escape from this spell under pressure with just an Alex Goode penalty which created a 9-12 lead for the visitors, with the bulk of the work done by some excellent (if occasionally naughty) maul defence.

Now we were set up for what had become a tense finish by default.  It was always going to be down to the team which got the next score and IMO the match winning sequence came about on 75 minutes.  Again it was an exit box kick from Saracens that started it, only this time it was actually falling to a team mate in Rotimi Segun.  The winger had played very well up to this point, especially defensively, but on this occasion he knocked it on before it went straight to Alex Goode who couldn’t resist the temptation of picking it up and shipping a penalty.

Bears outhalf Callum Sheedy then provided the boot-work of the day with a kick to touch that brought the lineout all the way to the 5m line.  Thacker was on target with this dart, and from the ensuing maul Siale Piutau seemed to have gotten it over the line, and the officials’ on field decision was a try, though it was up to the TMO again to check it out.

On seeing the replay, the officials got this decision spot on.  Siale had a foot over the side line so the touch down couldn’t be given, but the reason for this was an illegal challenge from the side by Jamie George, which meant pretty much the harshest penalty possible, namely a penalty try and a yellow card, was the only solution.

Now the home side were in the lead for the first time on the day and had just 4 or 5 minutes to bring it home.  A careless knock on from Morahan after the restart wasn’t a good start, and adding to their already high penalty count afterwards didn’t help much either.  I reckon they should have been on a warning long before this final spell, yet it was only at the 80th minute that the ref went to his pocket.  I’d actually go as far as saying it was long overdue that sub prop Max Lahiff himself saw yellow, let alone the Bears players in general as his number was called more than anyone else.

And with that penalty and yellow card, Saracens had one final chance to breach the Bristol line.  They went for another lineout, yet while a team like that can always back themselves against anyone, I’m wondering if a scrum would have been a better option?  The home side just lost a front rower so their starter would have had to return, and with 14 v 14 there would have been more space available.  

But most of all, a scrum would have taken the Bears’ lineout defence out of the equation, and when they forced the catch to be dropped, a fly hack into touch from prop Kyle Sinkler (not a bad sub to be able to bring on for John Afoa) actually (and mercifully for those who had pledge to do a writeup) ended the match.

There’s no doubt the win meant more to Bristol than their visitors.  Saracens literally have nothing left to play for in their final 9 Premiership matches so what they have between now and the trip to the Aviva Stadium is a series of warmup matches where they can pick and choose their lineups in the same way Celtic League ones were accused of in the past.

One thing is for certain - even without the personnel they have to feed back into their selections between now and then, they can certainly play better than they did on this day, and that’s saying something since I reckon they should have won.  

Right - I really think I have given that match all the harpin I could possibly have mustered.  Now I can finally turn my attention to the return of Leinster Rugby, albeit with fingers, toes, eyes, and everything else firmly crossed between now and kickoff time.  Many thanks to both Super Rugby Aotearoa and the Premiership for keeping me occupied for the past while, but it’s high time I was able to focus my attention on what I consider to be the “real thing” once more, and what a match to kick it all off.  Can. Not. Wait.  JLP



Taken by JLP from RDS press box on Nov 16, 2019