Saracens fight back after first red card under new rules
A ferocious rerun of last year’s Aviva Premiership final featured five concussions and one red card, which could well have been two, highlighting both rugby’s alarming attrition rate as well as the confusion surrounding the new law guidelines aimed at reducing it.
Saracens will claim the moral victory with a draw that returns them temporarily to the top of the Aviva Premiership having been reduced to 14 men after a quite sickening incident in the 11th minute.
Geoff Parling, the Exeter lock who has had his share of concussion problems, was carrying the ball when he was caught around the jaw by the swinging arm of Brad Barritt. That caused his head to dip into the rising shoulder of Richard Barrington, the prop, who was standing behind Barritt and was joining the tackle. Parling’s neck and head whipped back and he collapsed to the ground. After lengthy treatment he was carried off, but recovered enough to watch the later stages of the game from the sidelines.
Although there was no malicious intent on the part of Barrington, who had led the team out on the occasion of his 100th appearance for the club, referee Ian Tempest told him “unfortunately I have no other option” because his shoulder had made contact with Parling’s head. The red card duly followed.
Even if Barrington’s contact was the concussive blow, Barritt’s offence was the more reckless and Tempest could well have shown another card, given World Rugby’s guidelines demanding a “zero-tolerance approach” to head contact came into effect on Jan 3. Even if Tempest was using his discretion to
This was the first time Saracens have failed to win a home game in nine months. keep the game alive as a contest, expect a citing for Barritt later this week.
This is already the sixth red card to have been issued in the Premiership this season – only eight were shown in the entirety of last season – but the number could well be doubled on the present trajectory.
Mark McCall, the Saracens director of rugby, would not comment on the incident itself, but said of World Rugby’s initiative: “We need to be careful. Today’s game ended up being a titanic struggle between 14 v 15 but I don’t think anyone wants to see those type of games all of the time. We need to be sensible – and I am not saying they weren’t today – with how we apply this care for players.”
A pernicious knock-on effect of the new law guidelines is that in forcing tacklers to go low the risk has been transferred from one group of players to another. Several of the other concussions – Marcelo Bosch, Nick Tompkins, Barritt for Saracens and Ollie Atkins for Exeter – resulted from tacklers’ heads rebounding off hips and knees. As Rob Baxter, the Exeter head coach, remarked: “What I am interested in is if in a year’s time with the pressure to push towards low tackles if we end up having more concussions than we have currently with the change of tackle emphasis what will be the next decision?”
It is a shame that the controversy over law applications overshadowed another extraordinary display of resilience from Saracens. Within a few minutes of Barrington’s red card, they trailed 10-0, with Jack Nowell scoring a wonderfully dexterous try and Gareth Steenson kicking five points.
Sean Maitland, the wing, was sacrificed so Saracens could keep eight forwards, but that forced the back line to plug several holes. Richard Wigglesworth, the scrum-half, and Chris Wyles, the wing, were outstanding in that regard. Indeed Saracens were the better team in the second half and drew level six minutes from time through a pushover try from Titi Lamositele, Maitland’s replacement.
“I thought it was an incredible display for lots of reasons,” McCall said. “To lose the man as early as we did against a team of Exeter’s quality you have to fight, which we did, show a lot of effort, which we did, but we also had to be smart and clever in that they coped and dealt with all the situations that arose. That is as hard earned a two points as you will ever get. By the end it was a game we could have won.”
After Steenson kicked the penalty resulting from Barrington’s sending off, Exeter soon struck again through Nowell, who usually avoids the trips to Allianz Park’s artificial pitch. With Maitland absent from his post on the wing, Steenson kicked to the corner, where Nowell took the ball one handed like an NFL wide receiver. Odell Beckham Jr would have been impressed.
The sending off and the try left Saracens reeling. Their usual composure and ball-carrying ferocity were absent and it took until the half-hour for them to enter the Exeter 22. A scrum penalty afforded Alex Lozowski the opportunity to get Saracens on the scoreboard.
That the champions made it to halftime down only a score was testament to their enduring defensive excellence. With just a minute remaining in the half, Exeter flanker Dom Armand cut an excellent line between Michael Rhodes and Juan Figallo and looked certain to score but first Wyles got across to take his legs and then Rhodes managed to knock the ball from Armand’s grasp as he was stretching for the line. If you needed a passage of play to showcase Saracens’ resilience then that was it.
You can imagine that message was relayed in the changing rooms as Saracens came out for the second half with renewed purpose. It helps, of course, when you can call upon replacements of the calibre of Schalk Burger and Jamie George as well as the size of Will Skelton. The 22st Australian lock immediately bolstered the Saracens scrum and added several degrees of ballast in defence and as a carrier.
Lozowski and Steenson exchanged penalties but the momentum was building for Saracens. Eventually the dam burst when Jim Hamilton claimed a line-out and Lamositele came up with the ball. Lozowski converted to draw the scores level but Saracens could not find a winning score even as Alex Goode sustained yet another injury.
“We have to be disappointed not to have won having played so long with 15 v 14 and to got some space on the scoreboard,” Baxter said. “Not converting more of the five-metre pressure we had in the first half has ultimately cost us.
“I don’t know who the red card suited more. It made it so simple for them. The forwards were going to take control of the game. Ultimately they did enough to draw the game. We should be frustrated.”
Impact: Saracens prop Richard Barrington (top) collides with Geoff Parling’s head
Pain game: Brad Barritt was fortunate not to be red-carded for his high hit on Exeter lock Geoff Parling (left), but Richard Barrington was dismissed after his shoulder made contact with Parling’s head as he went to ground (right). Parling was substituted after prolonged medical attention but did not appear to be as badly injured as first feared.