Saracens maintained their pressure on the Aviva Premiership Rugby leaders as they inflicted a 10th straight defeat on struggling London Irish at Vicarage Road.
This grinding London derby encounter was decided by the boot, with young fly-half Owen Farrell kicking four penalties for Sarries and Chris Malone responding with two of his own for the Exiles. The win lifts Sarries up to second place, six points behind leaders Leicester, but Irish, without a win since October 31st, are now down to seventh with their hopes of a play-off place fading fast.
Saracens director of rugby Brendan Venter was in charge for the last time before returning to South Africa with his family, and his team began as if determined to give him a winning send-off.
Their pressure forced Irish to concede a seventh-minute penalty, but Farrell’s kick struck the inside of the near post and rebounded clear. When presented with the chance to make amends four minutes later, the fly-half managed to strike the opposite post.
But it wasn’t long before Saracens were back in the Irish half, earning a third opportunity for Farrell, and this time his penalty attempt flew straight between the sticks to give the hosts a 22nd-minute lead.
In their first effective attack Irish put Saracens under pressure at a scrum, and earned a penalty for offside which Malone kicked on 28 minutes.
Saracens found themselves behind five minutes later when Malone kicked his second goal following a ruck offence, but the hosts surged upfield and levelled three minutes before the break with Farrell’s second successful kick, awarded for offside.
Referee David Rose ended a very ordinary half by awarding Irish a penalty when Carlos Nieto entered a ruck from the side, but Malone’s kick cannoned off an upright and wide.
Irish made the more positive start to the second half, pinning Saracens in their own half, but they wasted a potential scoring situation in front of the posts with first a knock-on and then a penalty conceded at the scrum. With both defences strung across the pitch, breaking the gainline was difficult in the face of very resolute tackling, and time and again deep kicks were used in an attempt to pin opponents back.
Tempers flared in the 55th minute, and when Rose had calmed things down, it was Irish who benefited. But Malone’s penalty sailed wide. When Saracens finally returned to the Irish 22, a sustained attack was halted illegally and Farrell made no mistake with his third penalty on 65 minutes.
It was difficult to separate the teams as they repeatedly snuffed out each other’s attacks, but the customary rash of replacements in the final quarter did create a bit more room. Irish then put Malone under pressure with a pass that Saracens read and hunted down. The full-back was penalised for not releasing, and Farrell hammered home his fourth penalty, this one from 40 metres.
Saracens appeared to be finishing the stronger, although they could not break down the Irish defence. Just when the game seemed secured, Irish managed to battle their way into the home 22 with a penalty kick to touch for a lineout three minutes from time. But the home defence stood firm, and after a succession of drives, Irish lost possession.