Saracens survived a scare at Allianz Park as replacement Ben Spencer kept his nerve to down a spirited Newcastle Falcons from the tee.
Andy Saull and Alesana Tuilagi crashed over for the Falcons in the first half, but the evergreen David Strettle popped up with his sixth Aviva Premiership Rugby try of the season and Charlie Hodgson’s boot saw Saracens take in a slender lead.
Will Welch briefly put Falcons ahead but it came down to Saracens’ superior kicking in the second half, Spencer striking three decisive penalties after taking over from the injured Hodgson.
The two sides put on a showcase of enterprising rugby at Kingston Park in December – Juan Socino missing a last-gasp conversion which would have handed the Falcons a draw – and this clash started in much the same fashion.
Saull benefitted from a powerful driving maul, formed as a result of Tom Catterick’s decision to find touch, and the flanker drove on to put Newcastle ahead within the opening four minutes.
Catterick failed to convert and when Hodgson was presented with a penalty directly in front of the posts, Aviva Premiership Rugby’s all-time top points scorer reduced the deficit to 5-3.
With just over ten minutes played, the hosts found more answers after quick hands set up Strettle to dive over in the corner, which Hodgson converted.
However, in a tit-for-tat clash Newcastle soon levelled the scores through the bulldozing Tuilagi. The 34-year-old picked up the ball and charged down the wing, running straight at last man Strettle whose attempted tackle barely slowed the Samoan down.
Half an hour in, Hodgson’s close-range penalty put Saracens back in front by three points but moments later, the fly-half had to come off with an injury to his hamstring.
Nevertheless Sarries were on the ascendancy and Newcastle did well to hold them out before the half-time whistle blew.
Neil de Kock had also left the field due to a knock to his head and his replacement, Spencer, would go onto have a vital say in the second half.
Alex Tait’s swift break looked to be leading Newcastle to a perfect start and after numerous phases, another maul formed at the line-out was driven over by captain Welch.
Catterick’s first successful conversion of the afternoon gave the visitors a four-point advantage but only a determined defensive effort from the visitors made sure Saracens did not reply immediately.
The Falcons’ defence eventually gave away a penalty after 56 minutes which a confident Spencer made no mistake with.
The scrum-half then nosed Saracens ahead five minutes later with another well-taken penalty, this time from the sidelines.
Catterick broke free from the Saracens defence with seven minutes left to play but a second’s indecision from the fly-half, in which he failed to release Sinoti Sinoti, gave Saracens a chance to regroup and quell a dangerous attack.
Then Spencer’s third penalty of the afternoon was just as good as his previous, sailing through the posts from 35 yards before the hosts saw the remaining five minutes out.
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