David Strettle was the hero of the hour at Twickenham as his hat-trick led Saracens to a thrilling 34-28 win over Wasps in the opening match of the annual London Double Header.
After a fairly even opening to the match, Saracens drew first blood with what was their first real break of note.
Charlie Hodgson - who was preferred to Owen Farrell at fly-half - executed a clever grubber kick, which England wing Chris Ashton gratefully collected before bulldozing his way to the line. Hodgson added the conversion.
Kelly Brown was sent to the bin four minutes later following a rather cynical infringement at the breakdown, and veteran Andy Goode duly converted the first penalty of the day.
Saracens were quick to restore their seven-point lead soon after, Hodgson hitting back with a kick of his own after Wasps were rightfully penalised for tackling in the air.
The ‘visitors’ were not overawed by their sluggish start, and displayed some encouraging passing rugby moving forward with Christian Wade eager to get involved from his position on the right hand-side.
Needless and frustrating indiscipline was the order of the day throughout the early stages, and Goode soon had Wasps back within four in the 16th minute with a simple kick from a perfectly central position.
Hodgson gave Saracens breathing space with another penalty three minutes later, before the ‘hosts’ crossed the line once again.
Strettle provoked a lively chorus of Ini Kazome’s hit ‘Here Comes the Hotstepper’ as he raced ahead of Rob Miller to collect a loose ball and touch down unopposed.
Referee Andrew Small needed help from TMO David Sainsbury before giving the try, but it was eventually awarded after it was deemed that Strettle had not unfairly impeded the Wasps full-back in the build-up. Hodgson was was again successful with the kick.
Again, despite the setback, Wasps were looking to come forward and should have done better after Goode showed an uncharacteristic turn of pace to break away through the middle of the pitch.
The 34-year-old brought the score back to 20-9 after lock George Kruis was called for offside, in what was to be the last scoring action of the first half.
Hodgson spurned the chance to further extend his team’s lead shortly before the break after sending a difficult kick just wide of the left-hand post and was also responsible for the failure of a wonderfully bright attacking move from Saracens after overcooking a long pass out to Strettle that sailed out of play.
It took just four minutes of the second half for Wasps to register their first try. Joe Simpson was the architect, as he breached Saracens’ defence, found acres of space with an intelligent break through the middle and offloaded for Nathan Hughes to score. The ever-reliable Goode was on hand to convert.
Wasps were looking far more assured at this point and swiftly capitalised on more attacking pressure to take the lead for the first time.
With Saracens’ defence proving resolute, Goode aimed a lovely chip beyond the try-line. Just as it looked to be going dead, Christian Wade utilised his fearsome pace and stormed in to touch down.
Sainsbury took a long look to see both if he had applied the appropriate downward pressure and if the ball was down before the player made contact with the touchline and was evidently satisfied on both points as he allowed Small to give the score.
Suddenly, Wasps were a different proposition altogether and they soon had their third try. A bruising breakaway by the formidable Ashley Johnson led to a surprisingly deft grubber that was scooped up by the onrushing Wade who subsequently put the burners on and touched down directly underneath the posts.
For all of their great attacking play during the second 40 minutes, however, Wasps appeared somewhat fragile defensively and Saracens were able to answer Wade’s try with another of their own to bring the score back to 28-27.
A brief period of sustained pressure down the left-hand side resulted in Strettle scoring his second of the match. Substitute Farrell was successful with his first attempt at goal as the deficit was reduced to a solitary point.
By now the pace was absolutely frantic. Both teams were relentless in their physicality and a slew of replacements did little to stunt the exciting flow of the game.
Farrell had the chance to put Saracens back in front with just five minutes remaining after Wasps were guilty of an infringement at the scrum just inside of their own half.
Never one to lack belief and confidence in his own ability, he stepped up and drove the ball with real power but watched helplessly as it went wide.
Saracens supporters did not have to swell on that disappointment for long, though, as the impressive Strettle snatched victory at the death with his hat-trick try.
Some more speculative Wasps defending down their right allowed the the former Harlequins stalwart to secure the bonus-point win on a breathless afternoon that provided a suitable riposte to Northampton's crushing win over Gloucester on Friday.