Saracens are well and truly back. Their run of losses before Christmas is now history and their season is back on track. With Exeter’s defeat at Newcastle, Saracens are now only five points off top spot and with this defeat of Wasps, one of their nearest challengers, it would be a huge surprise if they do not retain their place in the top two positions in the league prior to the end of season play offs.
This was ultimately a comfortable victory for the reigning European Champions, as they outfought, outthought and outmuscled a depleted Wasps team.
They were significantly boosted by the timely return of England pair Maro Itoje and Billy Vunipola and it was the latter particularly, who made a big difference. He made several barnstorming interventions in the first half which put his team on the front foot and which directly led to two of their three first half tries.
The gloss and the class outside was provided by Alex Goode. The former England full back had a firecracker of a match. Not only was he secure defensively, he kicked effectively, always looked dangerous with ball in hand and also scored two excellent tries. The first a neat pick up and quicksilver dash along the touchline and the second, a defence-splitting break which effectively won his side the match, coming at a time when Wasps were only six points behind with the match still very much in the balance.
As Saracens’ formerly injured warriors were returning to the fray Wasps, by contrast, were facing a situation where many of their big players were missing. Whilst they have coped admirably in recent weeks and managed to record some excellent victories, it was always like to be a step too far against a team of the quality of a resurgent Saracens.
Whilst Wasps fought bravely and effected a very spirited comeback, ultimately missing players of the quality of Joe Launchbury, Nathan Hughes, Elliot Daly, Jimmy Gopperth and Karl Eastmond, amongst others, always meant that they could be fighting a losing battle and so it proved. The loss of both centres by half time did not help their cause either.
However, Wasps are a pragmatic bunch and their creditable Director of Rugby, Dai Young, who signed a new long term contract at the club this week, will not moan about their situation but will move on and look forward to their massively important Champions Cup matches against Harlequins and Ulster in the coming two weeks. Here, he fully recognised that their opponents had too much firepower on the day and were deserved winners.
Yet until the 66th minute, the match could still have gone either way, which was credit to Wasps as they were facing a potential hammering having gone 18-3 behind after only 15 minutes. By then Saracens had already scored three tries through Chris Wyles, Goode and Schalk Burger and were looking ominous. The only surprise being that the normally reliable Owen Farrell had missed all three conversions.
However, the match changed dramatically in the three minutes before the break. Firstly, on a rare foray into the Saracens twenty two, Wasps had two consecutive line outs close to the line and, on the second, referee Wayne Barnes awarded the home side a penalty try as they surged over the line for an illegal entry by Burger, who was issued a yellow card in the process.
Within moments Farrell was also sent to the sin bin for a dangerous flailing arm into the face of Wasps’ Dan Robson and, all of a sudden, Saracens were reduced to thirteen men. Wasps took immediate advantage. Following a line out, quick hands by Robson, Danny Cipriani and Christian Wade led to Willie Le Roux diving over to score.
15-18 at the half time interval and, quite remarkably, it was game on. The critical period was to follow in the opening seven minutes of the second half as Wasps had a numerical advantage.
However, as hard as they tried, they could not quite force their way over. The Saracens defence stood firm, as it had done for the majority of the match and, once their full complement of players had returned, they returned to ascendancy.
Wasps did come close, as Thomas Young agonisingly stepped on the touch line in the process of scoring, yet once Goode’s dancing feet and smooth acceleration allowed him to arc outside James Gaskell to score Saracen’s bonus point try with fourteen minutes to go, it was game over. Ben Spencer added another try in the final minute following a smart break from former Wasp Alex Lozowski and, in the process, earned Saracens their largest victory in the Premiership over Wasps.
Saracens will now head to Swansea for a ‘must win’ match next week against the Ospreys in good heart. Wasps, meanwhile, will be hoping for some good news from their medical team prior to their equally crucial match against Harlequins.
All the while, England supremo Eddie Jones will be licking his lips at the return to action and hugely impressive display of one of his key talismen, Billy Vunipola. Opponents of both Saracens and England beware for Billy is back, looking as strong as ever and he means business.