Saracens’ title defence out of their hands after Biggar earns Ospreys draw - WORLDWIDE HOT NEWS

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Saturday, January 13, 2018

Saracens’ title defence out of their hands after Biggar earns Ospreys draw


When Saracens defeated Ospreys in October, they extended their unbeaten run in the Champions Cup to 20 matches. Since then they have gone three without victory and the draw here, which Ospreys secured with a Dan Biggar penalty in the final minute after the holders had been blown again for collapsing a scrum, leaves them on the verge of elimination from the competition they have won in the last two seasons.

Even five points at home to Northampton on Saturday may not be enough. Saracens can no longer top their group, although Ospreys will if they win at faltering Clermont Auvergne, and while they never trailed here, the early assurance they showed in methodically building a 6-0 lead, looking to wear down their opponents with a series of body blows, melted as the game evolved to hinge on the scrum rather than the breakdown.

Even though the persistent rain throughout the day had relented by the kick-off, it returned midway through the opening period. Handling mistakes contributed to more than 20 scrums on the night and Saracens were penalised at six of them. Only the last one, in the final 90 seconds shortly after Owen Farrell’s fifth penalty looked to have secured victory for the holders, directly led to points. But the problems up front eroded their initial superiority and allowed Ospreys to establish territorial dominance.

Injuries also cost Saracens. They lost one back rower, Jackson Wray, to a hamstring injury in the warm-up and another, Michael Rhodes, to the same problem at half-time. The most grievous blow, though, was a wrist injury suffered by their No8, Billy Vunipola, in the first half as he attempted to tackle his opposite number, Rob McCusker. The England international failed to return for the second half of his second match following a knee injury and will be assessed this week before the national squad for the Six Nations is announced on Thursday.

In addition, Saracens were forced to replace the second row Will Skelton with the hooker Christopher Tolofua 10 minutes from the end, stretching even the most resourceful of clubs to the point that when Ospreys were awarded their final penalty after the prop Juan Figallo had dropped a scrum, their first thought was to kick for touch and go for the victory that would knock out the holders rather than the draw that would keep them on a life support system.

“Common sense prevailed and we took the three points,” said Biggar, whose fifth penalty cancelled out the five of his opposite number Farrell. If Farrell had largely dictated the first half, Biggar took over after the break, pinning back Saracens with his kicking variations and constantly in the ears of his forwards. Ospreys may have at no point been in the lead, but a draw was the least their initial defiance and latter mastery of the conditions merited.


It had looked so different in the opening quarter when Billy Vunipola went on a couple of rampaging runs, once flattening the wing Dan Evans as Ospreys pressed their advantage at a scrum unaware that the No8 had the ball in his hands, and the home side relieved the pressure by conceding penalties, two of which Farrell turned into points. There was a familiar brutality to the game, both sides seeking contact on a night that was about the basics rather than the trimmings with the match effectively a knockout.

Biggar scored his first points after 30 minutes when Maro Itoje contested a ruck off his feet, and although Farrell quickly restored his side’s six-point advantage with his third penalty, Biggar concluded the opening period with three points and drew Ospreys level with his third kick three minutes after the restart.

The momentum was swinging towards the hosts but Saracens regained the lead after 46 minutes with Farrell’s fourth penalty, although the prop Dmitri Arhip, who provided Mako Vunipola with an uncomfortable 80 minutes, was aggrieved to have been penalised at a ruck. The whistle of the referee, John Lacey, provided the theme tune to a night when risk was avoided to the point where the result was likely to be decided by a mistake.

Ospreys turned down three points to go for a driving lineout after Mako Vunipola had been enclosed at a scrum, but they never got the maul into gear. They were trailing when, with 15 minutes to go, the full-back, Sam Davies, claimed a ball in the air just inside his own half from Chris Wyles, who turned his back as he saw Jeff Hassler in front prepare to jump.

It meant he inadvertently tipped Davies shoulder first to the ground. Wyles was shown a yellow card and was in the sin-bin when Biggar equalised the score for the second time after Schalk Burger had held on to the ball under pressure from Justin Tipuric and Alun Wyn Jones.

Saracens quickly hit back via Farrell’s boot but Ospreys never wilted and when Figallo dropped a scrum 40 metres in front of his own posts, Biggar showed his gratitude.

“It was a disappointing way to finish and it is out of our hands now,” said the Saracens director of rugby, Mark McCall. “It was a tight, scrappy game that came down to the penalty count in the scrum which we lost heavily. Maybe we do not deserve to be in the competition because we lost twice to Clermont and drew here; we have probably not quite been good enough.”


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