Sometimes the big Gallagher Premiership clubs must be tempted to close their academies, not
to bother developing England players and pack their squad with foreigners. Saracens have one
of the best development systems in professional sport but their reward is to be left without a
gang of players for ridiculously long periods while the bloated international game refuses to
Saracens had won only three of their last six games before this match, and you wonder, when
the England players finally came back at training last week, if they had to introduce themselves.
As it was, not all the England contingent were ready to play.
This was one of their one-off spectaculars, and there was a decent crowd of more than 42,000
in the London stadium, well entertained by the sport and the superlative Stagecoach Choir.
It was hard, sometimes bitter; it was controversial and compelling, and even though Saracens
were sleepwalking through the first half and fell 17-6 behind, the final impression they gave after
dominating the second half was that things were falling into place prior to their European Cup
quarter-final match against Glasgow on Saturday, back at Allianz Park. They stay second in the
Mark McCall, the director of rugby, was asked what he had said to the team when they trailed at
the break- especially since Alex Lozowski had kicked the ball into touch to signal half-time,
only to find that there was one second left on the clock, which Danny Care used to score from
the lineout. However, McCall found that there was not much he had to say. 'The players were
really calm and focused about what we needed to do better," he said. Clearly.
Saracens were denied two tries under what seemed mysterious circumstances to many, but
they scored three which did stand, and in the end they won by far more than the score
suggests. Alex Goode, at fly-half, missed an easy penalty shot in the closing stages which
would have taken away the Harlequins bonus point but as it stands, in a brave rebuilding
season, Quins are still in fourth place and bound for the playoffs.
Next week Owen Farrell, Maro ltoje and George Kruis will be back but there is no way that
Saracens can leave out Will Skelton, who had a magnificent match, running like a giant stag
and completing the comeback with two tries late on. When they started playing, Saracens had
diamonds in Goode and Liam Williams, and Jamie George was incredibly vibrant considering
his efforts for England. For Quins, Care and Marcus Smith were excellent, and Paul Gustard,
the head coach, is clearly bringing the team on. In the end, though, they had no answer to
It was Smith and Care who scored their tries in the first half, but that only annoyed the
favourites. They dominated every phase after the turnaround. Billy Vunipola came blasting up
on a diagonal run to take a pop pass after a scrum and ran on to touch down. He did cannon off
JP Doyle, the referee, on his way but Doyle did not seem to obstruct any defender after the
glancing blow. It seemed from the soundtrack that the TMO found nothing wrong with the try,
but Doyle decided to rule it out.
He then ruled out another. Williams set out a fine move from deep which ended with David
Strettle crossing down the right. As the move progressed, Care and Williams had an altercation
across the other side of the field, begun by Care. The referee ruled out what would have been a
brilliant try and gave Saracens a penalty.
However, Saracens had already scored a try when Schalk Burger battered his way over from
close range and after swallowing the disappointment of the tries that never were, Skelton
crashed over twice in close succession to settle it.
My contacts in Australia tell me that despite the powder-puff nature of the current crop of Aussie
locks, the massive Skelton will not make their World Cup squad. Ludicrous. On this form, you'd
have him as lock, captain and reserve Harbour Bridge.