My first experiences of watching professional sport on a regular basis happened standing on the terraces at White Hart Lane as a teenager, those were the days of rocking up and paying your money then trying to stay on your feet, in my case, while watching a game of football. That was in the mid to late 70’s and a lot has changed since then. Not least this Tottenham Hotspur stadium, I’d heard it was one of the best in the world, and it didn’t disappoint. It really is highly impressive, I can only imagine what a full football crowd sounds like on game day!
Saracens had been due to play Harlequins in 2020 but Covid put paid to that, alongside Harlequins who play their Big Game at Twickenham every year, Saracens have had a big stadium game for a fair few years now. My season ticket happened after going to a match at Wembley against Northampton in 2009, a £10 ticket and a season ticket offer of £89, it was rude not to. I’ve been a season ticket holder since. These big days out aren’t always popular with regular fans, they can attract people who’re on a day out and more interested in the beer than the rugby. I annoyingly had 3 lads behind me who felt swearing out loud was the thing to do. Strangely they were rugby fans, they clearly knew the game and the players; I’d hate to see that creeping into the game. But it can only be good for the game to attract these big crowds.
Saracens and Bristol had met on the first weekend of the new season, with Alex Lozowski running the game for a triumphant Saracens. Owen Farrell was back in a Saracens shirt after being injured while with England in the Autumn, the captain was back, his leadership has been missed this season. Jamie George was making his 250th appearance and NIck Isiekwe his 100th, they rightly ran out first to receive the plaudits of the crowd.
Listening to the build up things didn’t quite go as the commentators thought it might, it was clear they thought Saracens might run away with it and that most certainly was not the case. Bristol play some lovely rugby and with the new England 9, Harry Randall starting they put on a show from the start. An early penalty saw a Bristol line out close to the Saracens line; the forwards did their thing for several phases before the ball was passed out to Antone Frisch who reached over to score. Saracens hadn’t touched the ball and Bristol had a lead of 7 with only 4 minutes on the clock.
Saracens spent some time in the Bristol half, winning a couple of penalties, 2 players who spent last season at Bristol and really win their fans over combined to score Saracens first try, with Ben Earl collecting a pass from Farrell that had missed several players, he had Max Malins on his shoulder and he passed perfectly for him to run in and score. Farrell slotted the ball over and the score was level. That try took Malins to 10 for the season for Saracens.
Both teams played some good running rugby. with Jamie George failing to catch a ball which would have seen him surge to the line. A forward pass from Tiff Eden, starting at 10 for Bristol gave both teams a much deserved breather.
A Saracens line out on the half way line went past the jumpers to Bristol hands, the next line out just in the Saracens half after a kick from Randall also went past the jumpers into the hands of Harry Thacker, the ball was offloaded beautifully by Eden and Piers O’Connor ended up with the ball on the wing, he ran in to score. Isiekwe appeared to be furious behind the sticks as we waited for the conversion. The line out hadn’t been looked at as a part of the build up to the try, this photo might tell us why he was upset.
The deficit was cut to 2 by a Farrell penalty, but the away team had a 2 point lead after 26 minutes. Another Farrell penalty on 31 minutes saw Saracens take the lead for the first time, but Bristol took that lead back with their own penalty 3 minutes later. I feel that Billy Vunipola was lucky not to see a yellow card after he made a swipe at the ball, knocking it on, he went with one hand and had zero chance of catching it. I do agree with the commentary on that one. I’m not sure they needed to labour the point quite as long however.
Harry Thacker threw a line out ball over his jumpers, but it went so, so right for Bristol as Eden took the ball, he passed to Frisch who made a lovely break, he totally stepped past Daly and flicked the pass back up to Eden who scored a cracking try. His first Premiership try and it was one to remember.
Elliot Daly showed his own stepping skills up the other end after a wonderful delayed pass from Farrell to Alex Goode, who passed out to Lozowski, he accelerated down the pitch, showing some real speed, Daly was on his shoulder and he made amends for his failure to get near Frisch with a great try of his own. Farrell’s kick was successful and the teams went in even on 20 apiece at half-time.
Both teams came out firing on all cylinders, but a turnover by Earl saw Saracens press into the Bristol half, a perfect pass from Goode saw Malins score his second of the afternoon. That try saw Semi Radradra and Charles Piutau come on, some subs! Another promising attack from Saracens saw play pulled back for a Bristol penalty.
A mystery moment had happened early in the half when a Saracens player (not sure who) kicked the ball off the end of the pitch, the result was a 22 restart by Bristol, when Harry Randall did the same play was pulled back for a scrum where he kicked, which was what I thought should’ve happened when it happened the other way round. Bristol, with John Afoa now in the front row won a penalty from that scrum, that was huge for Bristol. Saracens repelled a 19 phase forwards attack when the ball was knocked on. Saracens won a penalty from that one. Callum Sheedy replaced Eden.
I’m not a fan of Andy Goode after his ‘input’ during the Saracens relegation, he seemed desperate to find fault with Saracens play, he pulled up Daly going in at the side, but, Unlike Lawrence Dallaglio didn’t mention a Bristol player failing to roll away. Saracens looked to have scored their fourth try, through Nick Tompkins, but Farrell was prevented from taking the conversion as a knock on by Billy Vunipola was spotted by the TMO. The boos that sounded out were wrong, there was a knock on.
The moment that will no doubt be in the headlines tomorrow involved Owen Farrell, the TMO picked up a shoulder charge by Farrell on O’Connor, Vunipola had tackled O’Connor and Farrell didn’t engage his arm at all as he joined in, he hit O’Connor’s shoulder, another possible yellow card incident, he was saved by where he hit the player. And here we had Goode again, imitating Farrell’s accent was not cool, at all. Although I do agree that Farrell was daft to suggest the ‘hit’ because it was a hit, was ok. For Dallaglio to suggest a card wasn’t shown because ‘no one wants to show a card to the returning England captain’ just has to be wrong!
Saracens had a lineout close to Bristol’s line after Chris Vui obstructed Malins as he was looking to go for a Davies kick, the lineout went too long again giving the ball back to Bristol. Some poor decision making by Aled Davies who kicked the ball towards Bristol’s dynamic backs with less than 2 minutes on the clock, wonderful passing by Radradra and Piutau saw Jack Joyce storming up the pitch, it looked like the game had been won by Bristol as Jack Bates ‘scored’. However the final pass was forward and the try was wiped off, another correct decision.
Saracens won a penalty in the scrum and that was the game, it finished Saracens 27 Bristol Bears 23. I can’t in all honesty say the best team won, Bristol were so much better than that first match at Ashton Gate, they played some great rugby. But, Saracens will take the 4 points and stay in second place.