As the game wore on it would become an open and entertaining clash, but in the opening quarter it was Saints’ set piece that proved to be the biggest difference between the teams, winning repeated penalties at scrum time.
Saints’ forwards weren’t just dominating in the scrum, they were pretty handy in the maul as well, and one great drive down the far touchline had Saracens scrambling and ultimately conceding a penalty.
It was a tricky shot from the touchline, but as with his first effort Sam Olver’s touch off the tee was good, and his six points were the only things that kept the scoreboard ticking over in those first 20 minutes..
Penalties were the order of the day, and sights of the whitewash were few and far between in the opening quarter. Aside from an attack sparked by Kahn Fotuali’i and taken on by Dom Waldouck, the only other time either side got close to scoring was Tom Collins’s chase of his own kick that brought a call to the TMO.
Saints had attacked straight from the kick off, Ahsee Tuala finding Collins on the outside. The speedster kicked ahead and turned on the afterburners, only to be denied at the death by a desperate dive from Ben Ransom.
The decision was straightforward, and all the more frustrating given what was to follow. Saints may have dominated, but Saracens scored during their first period of concerted pressure to show that any thoughts of one-way traffic were going to have to be discarded quickly.
Saracens’ attack from a lineout had been pretty lateral, but as it drew the defenders with it David Strettle cut into the line from his wing, and his pace took him all the way to the corner.
However anything that Strettle could do, Olver could do likewise, and when Saints got back into the home 22 just four minutes later the fly half made the most of a huge gap to pop onto a Fotuali’i pop-pass at pace and dive over by the uprights.
The visitors’ handling in the build-up had been superb, using the dry conditions and artificial pitch to keep the ball alive. It didn’t seem to matter what number was on the back of the shirt, the intent was the same, and repeated attacks had Saracens on the rack.
So it was unfortunate that at the crucial moment a penalty was conceded, or a fumble made, and the promising build-up was not rewarded.
It had been an entertaining game, but while Saints’ team play had been good to watch the individual standout moments belonged to Maro Itoje, who followed up a bruising tackle on Olver with a pair of impressive breaks down the touchline.
Tuzla and Sam Dickinson had to be at their best to force the big lock to the ground, and the second charge brought another call to the TMO, this time to check to see if Ben Spencer had grounded the ball in the corner.
Waldouck’s tackle had sent the scrum-half into touch, but Saracens weren’t done, and instead of going for goal with a penalty 30 seconds from time they sent the ball to the corner. It turned out to be a mistake, Jared Saunders overthrowing to hand possession back to the Saints, and the half ended with the visitors still leading by eight.
Ninety seconds into the second half the margin was down to one, as Saracens caught Saints cold. Conceding a try from first phase is always frustrating, but Mike Ellery’s score was even more so, given that the right winger had tracked his side’s attack from a lineout and beat three defenders on a mazy run to the corner.
Spencer’s conversion was even better, curling the ball over from the touchline, and when the scrum-half nailed a penalty five minutes later Saracens didn’t just have the momentum, but a lead for the first time as well.
Two more Spencer kicks in the next 10 minutes after that punished soft penalties, and if anything confirmed the swing in how the game was going it was a scrum on the home 22 that saw a penalty awarded to Saracens, even as Saints were edging forward.
There was an Olver pass that sailed past Elliott into touch as well, but across the park Saints were distinctly second best in the third quarter, being bounced off tackles and outmuscled at the breakdown, none more so than a series of tackles on the hour that ended with Saracens turning the ball over on their own 22.
And then, all of a sudden, Saints struck. Now chasing the game, the coaches sent on Stephen Myler and Lee Dickson at half-back, and the pair had an immediate impact. Myler began organising those around him, who in turn ran straight and returned to their offloading game of the first half, and when a penalty was sent to the corner Dickson was on hand at the back of a maul to dot down.
Myler nailed the conversion into the wind to set up a thrilling final 10 minutes, and had Collins not been tap-tackled by Ellery when returning a poor Spencer kick up the touchline then the visitors could well have been back in front.
Saracens had escaped, and an impressive period of ball retention was rewarded by Nils Mordt’s drop goal that took the margin out to for.
Still, both teams had their chances to seal the win, Spencer missing a long penalty shot and then James Wilson not making the most of having unmarked men outside him, albeit while operating in tight confines down the left touchline.
But there was still time for one final charge from Saints, who quickly worked their way up the field from a missed kick to touch all the way to within touching distance of the whitewash.
Dickson took a quick penalty, Matti Williams worked around the corner and quick hands saw the ball head to Dickinson. Heading into touch the number eight put an offload infield, and with George Kruis scooping up the 50/50 ball the danger was de-fused and Saracens cleared for the win.
SARACENS Ransom; Ellery, Bosch, Streather, Strettle; Mordt, Spencer; Gill, Saunders, Figallo, Otoje (capt), Smith, De Jager, Hankin, Joubert
Reps - Spurling, Barrington, Alo, Kruis, Brown, Whiteley, Palamo, Fercu
SAINTS Tuala; Elliott, Stephenson, Waldouck, Collins; Olver, Fotuali’i; Corbisiero, Haywood, Ma’afu, Manoa, Ryder, Fisher, Dowson (capt), Dickinson
Reps - Williams, E Waller, Denman, Nutley, Clark, Dickson, Myler, Wilson
REFEREE Dean Richards
5mins SAINTS Miss DG Olver
6mins SAINTS Pen Olver 0-3
17mins SAINTS Pen Olver 0-6
22mins SARACENS Try Strettle 5-6
26mins SAINTS Try Olver Con Olver 5-13
HALF-TIME SARACENS 5 SAINTS 13
41mins SARACENS Try Ellery Con Spencer 12-13
46mins SARACENS Pen Spencer 15-13
51mins SARACENS Pen Spencer 18-13
54mins SARACENS Pen Spencer 21-13
64mins SAINTS Try Dickson Con Myler 21-20
71mins SARACENS DG Mordt 24-20
74mins SARACENS Miss pen Spencer
FULL-TIME SARACENS 24 SAINTS 20