Billy Vunipola scored a very late try to break London Irish hearts and secure Saracens a hard-fought 36-32 victory after a lively encounter at the Madejski Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
Wing Alex Lewington was in stellar form to produce a hat-trick for the hosts, who looked like they were on course to collect a morale-boosting result until the powerful Vunipola was driven over the line with the last action of an entertaining 80 minutes to keep his side’s 100% start to the new campaign intact.
Poor start for the hosts
The hosts cannot have foreseen a worse opening, with Saracens scoring the opening try with their very first attack after Tim Streather - who started alongside stand-in skipper Brad Barritt at centre as Duncan Taylor dropped to the bench - went over in the corner before Irish had a chance to claim any sort of a foothold in the game.
Mark McCall’s side looked dangerous with the ball in-hand early on and only a knock-on from Streather prevented the opportunity for another swift attack.
Owen Farrell - who, like Streather, had been given the nod as McCall endeavoured to utilise the full extent of the impressive depth available in his squad - got his first points of the afternoon with nine minutes on the clock after Irish were penalised at the scrum and for a moment it appeared as if Saracens were already building an unassailable lead.
The passionate home support were on their feet just two minutes later, however, with Irish hitting back with what was essentially their first sustained period of pressure. Flanker Blair Cowan was the man who got the Exiles up and running after good work from Luke Narraway.
Another penalty from the impressive Farrell gave Saracens breathing space and they were soon celebrating their second try of the first 40 minutes.
A good break down the left-hand side looked to have been stopped in its tracks after Chris Wyles was hauled down by Shane Geraghty, but scrum-half Richard Wigglesworth scooped up possession from the ensuing ruck, cleverly darted through a gap and touched down.
It would have been easy for Irish to succumb to such a powerful Saracens side that decimated Harlequins on their own patch last time out, but they showed tremendous fight and admirable resolve to notch another try of their own shortly before the half-hour mark. Fly-half Chris Noakes executed a high cross-field kick out to the right and there was Lewington to bring the ball in and score his first of a memorable afternoon.
That particular passage of play appeared to give the former Leicester Tigers man a huge confidence boost and his second try arrived just five minutes later. This time it was Scott Steele whose quick thinking with the boot paid dividends and Lewington was on hand to collect and apply the finishing touches.
Farrell was successful with a penalty attempt in the 37th minute but was desperately unlucky not to extend his tally on the stroke of half-time as a long kick at goal bounced back off the right-hand upright.
Having begun the first so sluggishly, Irish certainly had the bit between their teeth immediately after the restart. A penalty from Geraghty after an offside decision brought Brian Smith’s men back within a point and they led for the first time shortly afterward as Lewington claimed his hat-trick after showing tremendous pace to capitalise on a second grubber from Steele.
Saracens full-back Alex Goode took over kicking duties from Farrell in the second half and two kicks in close succession - the latter awarded after Irish were found guilty of coming in at the side - levelled proceedings at 29-29.
After a glut of tries had characterised the opening 40 minutes, the remainder of the match was a far more attritional, nervy affair.
Geraghty’s boot extended Irish’s lead to three but the 28-year-old proved inconsistent from long-range as two botched efforts - and one from Goode - kept the score at 32-29 heading into the final five minutes.
When Goode missed another kick with just three to play, it looked like Irish would hold on for an important victory until Sarries rallied late to make it three wins from three Aviva Premiership fixtures as they look to bounce back from last season’s final defeat to Northampton.
Vunipola strikes late
The visitors made the brave choice to kick for touch when presented with a penalty deep into opposition territory and that decision proved justified when a fierce and unstoppable driving maul from the subsequent lineout ended with Vunipola going over.
Replacement Charlie Hodgson kept his composure to succeed with the conversion and the final whistle from referee Luke Pearce sounded just seconds late to confirm a truly gut-wrenching defeat for Irish.