English rugby, it hardly needs stating, has a lot of problems just now but the quality of the product on the field is not one of them. Life will forever be plagued by the sort of people who complain all the time but let us celebrate, too, whenever we see superb rugby. We will never be rid of bad matches in this or any other sport, any more than we will be of moaners. But, if anyone is after exhilarating rugby, it is everywhere in the Premiership and has been for years.
Here Saracens reminded us that, when it comes to superb rugby, they remain in a class of their own at their best. Mere runners-up they may have been last season but they fairly dismantled the champions in north London, clearing the half-century, their highest tally against Leicester. Seven tries tell their own story but every single one was a gem. There could have been more. “Saracens are the standard-bearers,” said Steve Borthwick, Leicester’s coach, once of this parish, “and they have been for quite some time. They’re a team packed with power and pace.”
There is a lot of talk these days about the “new” Saracens, this team running wild and free that no one seems to recognise. Such talk is much overstated. Their excellence in playing a tight game has created a certain impression over the years but they have always played the wide game with excellence too. No side with players in it such as Schalk Brits, Alex Goode and Chris Ashton has ever been afraid of the wide-open spaces.
That said, they really have hit the heights already this season. For the above, read Jamie George, Elliot Daly, Max Malins et al. Just to take one try as an example – Saracens’ third, on the half-hour – the counterattacking skills of Malins and Daly were sublime and created the position for Owen Farrell, another whose playmaking skills have always been massively underrated, to put away George, picking a brilliant line, who sent over Malins. Fabulous.
Saracens had the bonus-point fourth just before half-time. The others were works of art too, from the way Alex Lewington beat Anthony Watson on the outside to set up Alex Lozowski’s opener, to Farrell’s pick-up to send Daly away for Ben Earl’s, to Mako Vunipola’s off-load and Hugh Tizard’s gallop in the build-up to Ivan van Zyl’s, which notched up the bonus point and a 27-13 lead at the break.
Leicester will be disappointed with themselves. They started well, 6-0 up in the first 10 minutes, then 13-10 up at the end of the first quarter, after James Cronin showed fine handling skills and then running skills to latch on to Freddie Burns’s speculative chip ahead.
At half-time they brought on their big signing, Handre Pollard, but South Africa’s World Cup-winning fly-half did not see his debut out. With 10 minutes to go he hobbled off with what looked like a knee injury, which will cause added concern in the Tigers camp.
Of more encouragement, though, will be the performance of Phil Cokanasiga, who looked great in midfield. His beautiful pass sent Freddie Steward to the corner to bring Leicester back to 27-18 down 10 minutes into the second half.
But Saracens accelerated away in the final quarter with three more tries to bring up that record tally. The fifth on the hour was another thing of beauty: extraordinary handling under pressure from a line-out by Farrell, Malins and Goode sent Daly on a dazzling run to the corner, through or past Ashton, Steward and Jimmy Gopperth. The second name in that list will no doubt have caused England’s erstwhile full-back extra satisfaction, as he tries to work his way back into the national squad in time for the World Cup.
The excellent Theo McFarland went over blind from a line-out and drive with 10 to go, before Sean Maitland picked up a loose ball and took off on a mazy run to the corner. Daly’s touchline conversion brought up the 50. It was a masterclass, a joy to behold. Sometimes it pays to stop complaining and celebrate instead. This was one such occasion.