A second half slump condemned Tigers to 32-27 defeat against 2011’s Champions Saracens. Four tries, all in the second period, meant that the Londoners left Welford Road with all 5 points and have opened up a 5 point cushion between themselves and the chasing Tigers in 3rd place. England trainer David Strettle bagged two of the tries and also gifted Tigers their losing bonus by conceding a penalty try with the clock dead.
For the third time in four matches Tigers started brightly but were undone by an atrocious second half. A pick and go from Julian Salvi gave Tigers their first try before possibly the try of the season stretched the lead to 14 points. It started from a scrum in the shadows of their own posts, strong pressure from Wigglesworth forced Ford to abort his kick to touch and step inside him, after beating one man he found Murphy who scythed through midfield up to the 10 meter line. Adam Thompstone was next to touch the ball as he held off Saracens’ James Short for a good 10 meters to stay infield, with the visitors torn asunder George Ford spotted there was no full back at home and chipped through for Bowden to finish off the try with a simple touchdown. Phew, like the score in Treviso before Christmas we went the length of the field in a little over 30 seconds and was some of the best rugby you’ll ever see anywhere in the world.
But we seemed a little too pleased with ourselves after it. We gifted Hodgson a penalty to get them back into before half time then simply decided to shut up shop in the second half. Despite the massive gains we made in the first half by running the ball at them, especially Geordan Murphy down Joel Tomkins channel, we seemed content to just hoof the ball away around the half way line. These were probably meant to be piercing corner coffins to build the pressure on Saracens and dominate the field position but instead they were lame ducks that gave Sarries all the possession they wanted.
In isolation all the kicks were pretty decent but they added up to Tigers surrendering possession and momentum. I know we play rugby football, but a little bit more rugby and a little bit less football would be better to watch and more effective on the field.
For the first try Saracens built a good platform inside the 22 with multiple forward carries, until Neil De Kock, a recent replacement, found David Strettle who simply gassed Matt Smith to slide through Tigers defence and score from 15 meters out. Perhaps Hamilton was too far over, or the forwards didn’t wrap round the previous ruck properly, but Smith with left with a fair size area to defend and he was unable to do it. Just 4 minutes later Short was like a greased Otter as he slid past Adam Thompstone then Murphy fell off the final tackle. Just terrible defence all round from Tigers typified by a disturbing lack of intensity. Thompstone was caught in no man’s land, he either had to rush and pressure the man, hoping to find the ball too, or be passive and try to shepherd the man into touch.
At least going behind stung Tigers back into some form of action, Murphy was to the fore again as he broke the line on half way and fed Hawkins on the outside. Had the former Bath man been on really top form he would have spotted Hamilton on his inside and possibly clear to the line, but it would have required a superb spot and then the skill to get the pass away. Taking on De Kock and recycling the ball wasn’t a bad option really just there might have been the sniff of a try.
Sarries third try was really about the impact of their replacements, De Kock had lifted the tempo and it was his break around the fringe, exposing yet more lazy defence from the Tigers, which set up the try. Back to his feet he was at the ruck in a flash and spun the ball out to League man Tompkins who threw a lovely cut out pass for Strettle on the wide outside. There was nothing Hamilton could really do as the damage was already done.
Tigers attacked well and got the penalty to get back within touch but practically straight from the kick off we were back in trouble. Tired defending from Crane and Ford let Fraser through a mid field gap to establish a ruck well into our 22, 3 phases later and Saracens span the ball wide to their left. Not a special move particularly just running at the line with some purpose, Dan Bowden missed the midfield tackle and Chris Wyles shrugged off Murphy’s attempt to stop the grounding. It was just a standard tackle missed; Bowden will be embarrassed watching that back in the morning.
Then we come to the final play. Saracens actually had the ball with the clock dead but manful work from the brilliant Tom Croft won us the turnover on the 22, we did nothing really with it until it came back to Croft on the right wing after a JC fumble. Croft rolled back the years to show his power and pace to get within 5 yards of the line. Ford’s cross kick was caught by Thompstone but he couldn’t find the scoring pass and the move went on. Taylor was shown a yellow card for a ruck offence and from that penalty came Strettle’s knock down and Tigers penalty try.
Watching the game back it just reinforces my view from the terrace, the team was tiring visibly and yet Cockerill sat on his hands and made no subs until the goose was cooked. Fresh legs from Chuter, Balmain and Deacon might have got us round those rucks and killed their tries at source. There is only so much blame you can put on tired players.
Cockerill needs to either trust his bench or deliberately keep players in reserve for these final flings. To lose once from a winning position is a misfortune, to lose three seems like carelessness.