World Cup winners John Smit and Stephen Donald go head-to-head
8 January 2012, 07:34 pm ::
Farrell sees Saracens close gap at the top
Saracens moved closer to Aviva Premiership Rugby leaders Harlequins with a 26-19 win over Bath that kept the champions second in the table.
Owen Farrell kicked 16 points but missed another 12 in a hard-fought victory to mark the 2,000th Aviva Premiership Rugby game since Bath and Newcastle played the first on August 23rd, 1997.
And it was clearly a big day for the likes of Charlie Hodgson, Farrell, David Strettle and Brad Barritt of Saracens, all the subject of England selection speculation in recent weeks. Equally, Bath duo Matt Banahan and Dave Attwood will have had Six Nations selection in mind on the back of last week's impressive 30-3 victory over London Irish.
But it was All Black fly-half and World Cup winner Stephen Donald who struck first in the fifth minute, finishing off a series of attacks by Bath sparked twice by scrum-half Michael Claassens and aided by Nick Abendanon. Donald gathered a loose ball and darted between the posts then added the conversion.
Saracens had an opportunity to get on the board in the ninth minute when French referee Pascal Gauzere penalised Bath for collapsing a scrum. But Farrell's penalty rebounded off the left-hand upright and was cleared.
Saracens lacked their usual sharpness during the opening exchanges whereas Bath threatened with ball in hand and forced their hosts to display their renowned defensive qualities a number of times during the opening 15 minutes.
Saracens lost prop Rhys Gill to the sin-bin on the quarter-hour mark for a scrum offence on his line, but Carlos Nieto came on for the next scrum and this time Bath offended by not releasing when Donald was tackled.
And Saracens hauled themselves level on 19 minutes when Strettle's break on the left left two defenders in his wake. Strettle was tackled, but Saracens retained possession and former England captain Steve Borthwick powered forward to score from close range. Farrell's conversion levelled matters.
Bath regained the lead inside three minutes. Saracens strayed offside on the edge of their 22 and Donald kicked the resultant penalty. And you sensed it might be one of those days for Farrell when his 28th minute penalty attempt slammed against the same post as his first, and again flew clear.
But the centre made no mistake on 32 minutes, firing home high and dead-centre after Bath failed to release after being trapped trying to break off their own scrum.
Farrell then edged his team in front for the first time with a penalty two minutes from the interval. The half ended with a spot of pushing and shoving as the teams disappeared down the tunnel, a case of handbags at half-time for no evident reason after a hard but clean first half.
The elusive Strettle posed a constant threat, and after two of his trademark darting attacks, Bath were sucked into offside defence and Farrell increased the home side's lead after 48 minutes. Two minutes later Saracens went off their feet at a ruck, and it was the turn of Tom Heathcote to bang a penalty attempt against the same post struck twice earlier by Farrell.
Bath continued to press, however, and when a careless knock-on by Alex Goode gave them a good platform, Heathcote got the chance to cut the lead with a 58th minute penalty awarded for not releasing.
Farrell missed his third kick of the game 90 seconds later, and his fourth - a very poor effort - from close range on 62 minutes. But Saracens scored their second try on 69 minutes. Hodgson's pass left to Goode was whipped on to Chris Wyles, and the wing swept beyond the weak challenges of Abendanon and Banahan to score, Farrell converting.
Then Heathcote rifled over another penalty on 73 minutes to keep the pot boiling, but Farrell scored his sixth goal on 77 minutes and Heathcote kicked his third at the end to earn a bonus point.