By Sarah Mockford, Rugby World Features Editor at Wembley
THE X FACTOR finals were taking place next door at Wembley Arena but on the pitch here it was a chance for Saracens and Ospreys players to see if they could hit the right notes and impress their respective national coaches. Saracens emerged after 80 minutes with a 31-26 win, but they let the Ospreys hit back in the second half to grab what could become a vital losing bonus point in this tight Heineken Cup pool.
The English champions controlled the game for 50 minutes, dominating possession and territory, Alex Goode impressing with his running lines, Charlie Hodgson dictating play and their forwards hitting the contact area hard. The Ospreys, on the other hand, gave away a lot of penalties and Saracens took advantage.
The Welsh side simply couldn’t get a foothold in the game; the pack were struggling to provide decent front-foot ball for the team’s exciting runners and it was a decent counter-attack that produced Ashley Beck’s first try. Shane Williams may have produced a great try last weekend but he was quiet out wide at Wembley. Instead, it was Schalk Brits who produced the moment of the match, an exquisite back-handed offload putting Chris Wyles over for Saracens’ third try.
Then it all went wrong. Owen Farrell was sin-binned and Brits and Hodgson – two of Saracens best players – were taken off. Apparently they were both still recovering from injuries and were replaced as a precaution, but it didn’t look the smartest move as the Ospreys got themselves back into the game. The momentum swung the way of the Welsh side as they scored ten points when Farrell was off, Beck crossing for a second try and five points coming from Dan Biggar’s boot, and that meant the pressure was on Saracens to close out the win.
They did that in the end but the Ospreys still managed to secure a losing bonus point. In a tight group like this, and with Treviso beating Biarritz, that point could be crucial come the end of the season, particularly given Saracens’ failure to get a bonus point of their own with a fourth try when they had dominated the match.
“We’ve got to go down there and come away with a win next weekend,” said Saracens coach Mark McCall. “We’ll take a lot of confidence from the first 50 minutes, but not the last 30. For 50 minutes we did a lot of things well and put a very good team under pressure; we were the dominant side in that period. But we lost that momentum when Owen was in the sin-bin.”
Both sides have improvements to make on the back of this match, but when they meet again in Swansea on Friday night it’s sure to be another tight tussle. And that’s just what the Heineken Cup is about – close-run, edge-of-the-seat affairs.