Saracens Women looking to keep up fine form
There are some things you can’t compromise on in rugby and one of them is tackling. When it comes to defence, Saracens Women are more than capable of getting down and dirty with the best of them.
Never was that more in evidence than in the superb away win over Harlequins. Yes, that’s right, the Harlequins team that broke our hearts in last season’s Allianz Premier15s final and then took our unbeaten record this season with a storming win at the StoneX Stadium.
They say revenge is a dish best served cold, but last weekend it meted out on the back of an incredible 254 tackles. They shall not pass . . . and they didn’t! It was a trademark Wolfpack performance of the highest calibre and kept the ‘Women in Black’ riding high at the top of the table.
“That is a pretty significant statistic in a game of that magnitude and it typified the spirit of the side. You don’t want to have to make that many tackles in a game, but it helps to be able to do so if you need to,” said a delighted Saracens head coach Alex Austerberry.
“Our tackling underpinned everything we did in the game and to come out with a 22-8 win. They won the territorial battle in the first-half, but we had the wind in our favour after the break. It was pretty attritional from start to finish and we always felt that if we could stay within touching distance of them that the game would come to us.
“Game’s like this always turn on small margins and it was our ability to stay in the fight, to get up and make the next tackle that was key critical. In the end, it turned out to be a relatively comfortable win – on the scoreboard at least!”
If Austerberry was able to remain quite calm in the final quarter at The Stoop, he was anything but that in the build up to the game. He lost Wales prop Donna Rose to a head injury sustained in the Welsh training camp, had COVID scares with a few other players and was trawling the tournament regulations on Thursday night to see what he could do to potentially recruit a few extra bodies if required.
Thankfully, the COVID tests came back negative – “never has a negative result ever turned out to be such a positive for us” – and Austerberry was able to take a strong team with him for the ‘Game Changer’. Top scorer Zoe Harrison was missing, but Holly Aitcheson moved into the No 10 jersey and showed her class.
The early momentum may have been with the home side, with England hooker Amy Cokayne crashing over for the opening score from a typical close range maul, but once they got into their stride there was no stopping Saracens. Aitchison crossed in the corner after some neat handling and Alev Kelter stepped up to add a superb conversion.
Many of those 254 tackles were made in a physical first-half that saw the home side try to batter their biggest rivals into submission. Marlie Packer and co refused to be intimidated or to give an inch of ground.
A penalty from Lagi Tuima gave Quins an 8-7 interval lead to give the home side a one-point leads. They weren’t able to add to their tally in the second half as the ‘Women in Black’ turned up the tempo.
Packer’s influence at the breakdown was enormous and Kelter saved the day when she raced back to hunt down Tuima after she intercepted and looked certain to score. The Fijian-born England international back three star sped away, but was somehow caught from behind by the double Olympian, Kelter.
The Quins rolled on, using Shaunagh Brown and Cockayne as battering rams to try to edge further ahead. They found themselves running into a solid wall of immoveable Saracens women.
As a thrilling and tense game moved into the final quarter, so Saracens can into their own. It was a classic case of what they call in boxing ‘rope a dope’ tactics. You soak up all the pressure and then wait for your moment to pounce.
When their time came it was fitting that the outstanding England back rower, Packer, should bag the try. She went over from a powerful rolling maul to give her side a four point cushion, which Kelter extended with a penalty to make it 15-8 with eight to go.
The final act was provided by the indefatiguable Vicky Fleetwood, who played nine-pins with the Quins defenders before touching down for a third Sarries try. Kelter added the extras and that was that.
“We went into the game with a few problems, and a couple missing, but confidence was high. Since losing to Quins we had won all five of our games,” added Austerberry.
“This win has given us a big psychological lift. We had the wood over Quins pre-COVID, we had their number. But that all changed when they beat us in last year’s final and then came to the StoneX in the first half of the season.
“They outplayed us quite significantly in that game and were physically dominant. We couldn’t allow that to happen again.
“Winning at The Stoop isn’t going to define our season, but it has given us a little bit of breathing room at the top of the table. It also gives us something really positive to build on and on numerous levels in was a considerable shot in the arm.
“But as I told the girls in the huddle after the game, if this is the pinnacle of our season then we will fall short in our quest to regain the title. We can’t let that be the case.
“The next three games – Gloucester-Hartpury, Bristol Bears and Sale Sharks – are vital in terms of taking control of our destiny. If we win them all, given one of them is against second place Bristol, then I think we will have at least qualified for the play-offs.
“It’s important to try to get that done before the break for the TikTok Women’s Six Nations. Then we will be back together again for the final two regular season games before heading into the play-offs,
“We’re in a good place so we need to make sure we don’t let opportunities slip.”