University of Leeds graduate Andrew Belt reports on Saracens’s impressive outings in the Heineken Cup, and the club’s exciting future, for Leeds students starved of elite rugby union in the city…
Sunday marked the last outing in Watford for St Albans’s best sports club before they move to Barnet next week. Confused?
It’s not always widely documented that Saracens FC are based in the south of Hertfordshire rather than nearby London but their Heineken Cup group match versus Edinburgh was their last at Watford FC’s Vicarage Road, having been tenants at the Hornets’s home ground for 16 years.
Next week, the ambitious rugby club move into their new Allianz Park stadium in Barnet as plans to run the club without the help of their football neighbours are put into practice.
Snow across the country had prevented many sports fixtures taking place last weekend but thanks to a hardy bunch of volunteers, who began their game-saving mission at 8.30am, Saracens’s last ever game at Vicarage Road was to go ahead. Had it not, their time at Vicarage Road would have ended in the same way as it started; their first scheduled match versus Richmond at the ground in 1997 was called off due to bad weather.
Forever forward-thinking, Saracens, under the stewardship of chairman, Nigel Wray, won’t have such dilemmas to contend with at AllianzPark. Their new stadium will become the first all-weather artificial pitch in British rugby union when they take to the pitch for a historic inaugural encounter against the Cardiff Blues in the LV= Cup next week.
Sunday’s match programme was dedicated to saying thanks and goodbye to Vicarage Road and 5, 673 fans battled the perilous roads to bid farewell to the stadium but, with a Heineken Cup Quarter-Final in the offing for the hosts, sentimentality was put aside as Saracens battled to a bonus point victory over their Scottish opponents.
Whilst spectators wore multiple layers of clothing and clutched hot cups of coffee and Bovril to their chest, the two sides engaged in entertaining rugby and lashed their bodies on the freezing pitch surface for the good of their respective causes.
Saracens needed a win to secure a Quarter-Final place while Edinburgh, effectively, had nothing to play for having failed to secure a single point in this season’s European campaign despite making the Semi-Finals in last season’s Heineken Cup during an awe-inspiring run from the Rabo Pro Direct side.
Despite this, Edinburgh began brightly and chipped kicks towards the Saracens backs in an attempt to catch them out in the wet, snowy conditions. Saracens’s defence is among the best in the club game and Edinburgh’s attacking threat was tempered before the home team took the game to the Scots.
Owen Farrell’s excellent kicking form continued and Chris Ashton gratefully accepted Richard Wigglesworth’s grubber kick to put Saracens 14-0 up. Greig Tonks’s try was converted by Greig Laidlaw to bring the score to 14-7 at half-time and put the tie firmly in the balance.
Edinburgh were playing like a team with nothing to lose and were a credit to the competition as the travelling fans dressed in kilts seemed to appreciate but an early, and brilliantly-executed, Ashton try in the second-half signalled the end of the contest with the Sarries playing with enough intelligence and determination to add three further tries through Matt Stevens, Charlie Hodgson and Chris Wyles.
The 40-7 victory secured Sarries a home Quarter-Final versus Ulster as emotive music was blared out at the end of the game on a momentous day for the club. I had been lucky enough to attend Saracens’s win over Munster in the Heineken Cup last month, when Irish fans were out in numbers, and the European competition is a fascinating tournament to watch unravel.
Rarely do you hear club rugby union crowds so vociferous in their backing than at Heineken Cup games and for spectacle, it’s the sport’s equivalent to football’s Champions League.
This is the first season I’ve been to Heineken Cup games and it’s a tournament well worth watching. It’s just a shame that Leeds students don’t have a European rugby union team to support alongside the esteemed rugby league World Champions that play at Headingley.
In the meantime, when the competition resumes in April, you could do worse than find a Sky Sports outlet and cheer on England’s three remaining teams in their bid to bring the trophy back to the country for the first time since 2007.
Saracens continue to innovate both on and off the field and could just become the rugby union club to watch for the future; perhaps sooner than you think…