Bulls 27 Saracens 16
On Friday lunchtime, Saracens would not necessarily have been the obvious pick for the first English side to lose in this season’s Champions Cup. Certainly, few would have predicted the manner in which they succumbed to the Bulls, who boast four World Cup winners in their starting XV, with the South African franchise bullying the Premiership champions in almost all areas.
The trip to Pretoria and the altitudinal Loftus Versfeld – at 1,350 metres above sea level – also marked the first appearance for Owen Farrell since Saracens announced that the skipper would be taking an extended break from the international arena to protect the mental health of both him and his family, with no date set for an England return.
There were some silky touches from Farrell – particularly in Saracens’ second-half purple patch – but the fly-half was helpless to prevent both his side’s indiscipline and the comprehensive nature of the Bulls’ victory. Given the hosts had three tries ruled out, however, and with them arriving at the inaugural meeting between these two sides on the back of impressive domestic form, they will be disappointed to not have secured a try bonus point.
Saracens’ effort was hampered by indiscipline, albeit in harsh circumstances. The visitors had to deal with two first-half yellow cards and a red card to Billy Vunipola in the second. The England No 8 caught the head of opposite number Cameron Hanekom – incidentally the match’s outstanding player – and referee Andrea Piardi deemed it to be more than a glancing blow. Unfortunately for the Italian, it was not.
The decision to yellow card Alex Goode in the first half was also scarcely believable, with the Saracens full-back guilty only of standing as still as a statue.
That is now two weeks on the trot that Saracens have been overawed physically by their opposition; uncharacteristic of them and concerning for director of rugby Mark McCall. Given the visitors’ impotence in the face of the Bulls’ abrasiveness, it was almost an achievement of sorts that the English champions were not trailing by more than 14 points at half-time.
In attack, admittedly without Farrell’s lieutenant Goode for 10 minutes owing to his phantom “block”, Saracens barely fired a shot in the first half. They never really looked like scoring, Farrell’s scuffed 45-metre drop-goal attempt embodying the Saracens daze. Indeed, the Bulls also had two first-half scores ruled out.
Hanekom, the Bulls’ 21-year-old wrecking ball No 8, looks a frightening prospect. It was his venomous carrying – alongside the lethal threat of Springbok Kurt-Lee Arendse out wide – which provided the platform for the hosts’ first try, with Willie le Roux stepping up to first receiver and locating Johan Goosen out wide, with the fly-half putting David Kriel in unopposed down the right.
— Investec Champions Cup (@ChampionsCup) December 9, 2023
With Elrigh Louw and Stedman Gans having tries ruled out – the first for a rank forward pass and the latter for a foot in touch – two Farrell penalties kept Saracens in the hunt. But once Maro Itoje was sin-binned for a cynical ruck infringement on the stroke of half-time, another Bulls score felt inevitable. And so it proved, with Janko Swanepoel clattering over from close range after an earlier nifty penalty move from the hosts.
Kriel’s forward pass meant that the Bulls had yet another score ruled out shortly after half-time but the hosts would make no mistake soon after. Arendse left both Nick Tompkins and Jamie George for dead, before drawing Goode and feeding Canan Moodie. Farrell’s excellent tap-tackle made the finish look unwieldy but it was not enough to stop the wing adding a third for the Bulls.
Once Vunipola had seen red, the Saracens semi-resurgence began. Farrell threaded the cutest pass to Goode, whose long ball gave Elliot Daly an opportunity in the corner; the one-handed finish was immaculate from the centre. Swanepoel was sent to the sin-bin because of the hosts’ cumulative infringements and Theo McFarland stretched out his long levers to add a second for Saracens and ignite hope of a losing bonus point – but it never came.
Two consecutive losses for Saracens; a rarity in modern times. McCall’s squad face a big week ahead of Connacht’s arrival in north London next week. The mini-rot must stop there.