Ben Kay Column
Sarries' homework rewarded
September 29, 2010
Derick Hougaard slotted all of Saracens' points against Northampton © Getty Images
The dust has settled on another round of Aviva Premiership action and London Irish are standing tall at the top of the table.
All the attention in the build-up to round four had focused on Sunday's meeting between Northampton and Saracens at Vicarage Road after the events of last season but with the Saints dropping the ball, which wasn't hard given the torrential weather, Toby Booth and the Exiles snuck up and took the inside track to the summit with a big win over Newcastle.
Northampton's backroom staff probably made an error in opting to rest two of their big names, Chris Ashton and Courtney Lawes, in what was a massive test of their title credentials and unbeaten record. They'll soon have a three-week window to give them time off and you would have thought that they could have waited until a home game and tried to take the points off Saracens, who are obviously going to be one of the contenders come the end of the season.
I was a bit disappointed with them but you can't take anything away from Saracens. It wasn't a particularly great game but Saracens nullified a lot of what Northampton have been very good at and picked up the points.
The Northampton scrum was nowhere near as dominant as it has been and at times, particularly when Carlos Nieto was on, Saracens got on top at the set-piece. They did a very good job of their homework and were extremely efficient at cancelling out any Northampton momentum.
Obviously the headlines on the day were stolen by their fly-half, Derick Hougaard, who chimed in with all of Saracens' points. Derick doesn't do anything overly flash but he does what he does very well. He's a good kicker and while he rarely runs he has excellent distribution. The thing that always impressed me when we played together at Leicester was how level-headed he was. He's a nice bloke but also very studied and calm under pressure.
It's massively important to have someone with a kicking game to put you on the front-foot, particularly in a game with two good defences, poor conditions and with no quarter given. It's difficult to make ground in that situation and a sensible kicking game makes a huge difference.
Since the weekend, Saracens have been back in the news thanks to Steve Borthwick missing Monday's Heineken Cup launch to attend a team bonding exercise at a beer festival. I think Saracens are building this 'us against them' attitude within their camp, it's almost like they're making a point to themselves and their players. They're trying to create this atmosphere but it wouldn't have been the end of the world if Borthers hadn't been at the beer festival. I'm sure they'll take their sanction and whatever goes with it.
In some ways, London Irish's team spirit reminds me of Saracens. The way the Exiles are building the climate at the club is very similar. Booth is a classy coach. I really like him, mainly because of the attitude he portrays and his players are obviously enjoying playing for the club. They beat Saracens in the first game and have put in some good performances, even if Newcastle are looking like possible relegation candidates at times. They deserve to be top but the question mark about them still is at the business end of the season and whether they've got the steel to cope under pressure.
Away from the bright lights at the top of the table, I was very impressed with Gloucester's victory over Wasps at Kingsholm. They looked like a different team and seemed to deliver what the fans had asked of them - more passion. They don't possess the greatest resources but they pulled out a typical Gloucester performance in front of the shed. If Dave Walder had landed that late penalty for Wasps to nick it, it would have been a travesty.
There were a couple harsh lessons learned at the weekend and both Exeter and Leeds will probably see more before the season is out. Of the two sides, I think Exeter are best placed to bounce back after shipping 40 points away at Harlequins. A lot of people are saying that they've been found out, I'm not so sure that's the case.
They're not one of the best teams in the Premiership, granted, and they're going to go away from home and take losses. On occasion they will be quite heavy. We saw in the Leicester game that they have plenty of spirit but also that they also have defensive holes. Crucially though they possess the luxury of being able to put that behind them now thanks to the cushion of the points that they've gathered early on. Leeds, on the other hand, are under massive pressure and the longer they go without picking up points the worse that will get.
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Ben Kay is a co-commentator for ESPN