Saracens beat the Sharks 23-15 in a warm-up match in London on Saturday thanks to a superior first-half performance, writes JON CARDINELLI.
As a team already at the halfway point of their season, Saracens were always going to be favourites in a clash against the ring-rusty Sharks. And yet, while Saracens were in control for much of the game, the Sharks did enjoy a few good periods of play, particularly in the second period.
Saracens flyhalf Charlie Hodgson recovered from an early miss to nail two consecutive penalties and establish an early lead for the hosts. The Sharks then lost both locks within two minutes; Etienne Oosthuizen sin-binned for pulling down a maul and Pieter-Steph du Toit yellow-carded for a professional foul at the lineout.
Saracens took advantage of some slack defending on the Sharks' tryline, Hodgson handing David Strettle the final pass, which gave Saracens a 13-3 advantage.
The Sharks did well to fight back, despite being reduced to 13 men. They didn't concede a point in that time, but then Hodgson made the play that put Saracens firmly in control of the game.
Sharks flyhalf Tim Swiel battled to find his rhythm in the face of substantial defensive pressure, and right on half-time, he threw a flat, aimless pass in hope of finding a team-mate out wide. The play was expertly read by Hodgson, who intercepted and raced away to score under the posts. At 20-3, Saracens were starting to make their dominance in general play tell on the scoreboard.
Encouragingly, the Sharks continued to fight after the break. Captain Bismarck du Plessis and several other forwards stood up to the immense physical challenge.
The Saracens' defence would be tested later in the half when the hosts were reduced to 14 men. They looked to have absorbed the pressure, until Tera Mtembu broke the line and André Esterhuizen finished off the move for the visitors' first try.
A second score by Heimar Williams in the corner, which was also completed while Saracens were shorthanded, brought the Sharks within striking distance at 20-15 and 15 minutes left on the Allianz Stadium clock.
Just when it appeared as if the momentum was shifting, it was again Hodgson who produced the telling play. Hodgson's penalty goal in the 69th minute handed the home team an eight-point cushion, and once again the Sharks were forced to play catch-up.
While they lost, the fixture would have done Jake White's charges a world of good. The improved second-half showing also suggested that they will only grow stronger in the coming weeks.
Saracens – Tries: David Strettle, Charlie Hodgson. Conversions: Hodgson (2). Penalties: Hodgson (3).
Sharks – Tries: André Esterhuizen, Heimar Williams. Conversion: Tim Swiel. Penalty: Swiel.
Saracens – 15 Chris Wyles, 14 James Short, 13 Michael Tagicakibau, 12 Marcelo Bosch, 11 David Strettle, 10 Charlie Hodgson, 9 Neil de Kock, 8 Ernst Joubert, 7 Jacques Burger, 6 Justin Melck, 5 Mouritz Botha, 4 Steve Borthwick (c), 3 Matt Stevens, 2 Schalk Brits, 1 Richard Barrington.
Subs: 16 Scott Spurling, 17 Nick Auterac, 18 Petrus du Plessis, 19 Tom Jubb, 20 Takashi Kikutani, 21 Richard Wigglesworth, 22 Duncan Taylor, 23 Sam Stanley.
Sharks – 15 Tyler Fisher, 14 Odwa Ndungane, 13 Paul Jordaan, 12 André Esterhuizen, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Tim Swiel, 9 Cobus Reinach, 8 Willem Alberts, 7 Jean Deysel, 6 Tera Mtembu, 5 Pieter–Steph du Toit, 4 Etienne Oosthuizen, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Bismarck du Plessis (c), 1 Tendai Mtawarira.
Subs: 16 Kyle Cooper, 17 Dale Chadwick, 18 Lourens Adriaanse, 19 Stephan Lewies, 20 Jacques Botes, 21 Charl McLeod, 22 Heimar Williams, 23 Jaco van Tonder.
Photo: Steve Haag/Gallow Images