Glasgow Warriors’ matched Saracens physically and for the most part got the platform they wanted in their Heineken Champions’ Cup opener at Scotstoun, but they floundered on the English champions’ smothering defence going down 13-3.
The twice European champions were hardly at their best and played much of the game on the borderline as is their custom, but they did enough with their experience and streetwise knowledge to edge a tetchy and ill-tempered contest peppered with penalties and needless off-the-ball confrontations.
Mike Rhodes’ try after only 11 minutes was the only time the line was crossed, although Glasgow will rue not taking more of their attacking opportunities especially just before half-time when they tried and failed three times to drive the ball over in the shadow of Saracens’ posts.
That was the only occasion it looked as if the English team would buckle, but they survived and Glasgow’s usually expressive attacking game was shut down but for a handful of half-breaks that were soon snuffed out.
Saracens’ England star Maro Itoje was man of the match, an award that incensed the Scotstoun crowd as the flanker was involved in much of the bad-tempered confrontations throughout the game.
“It seems Itoje is a law unto himself, he seems to get away with everything,” said Warriors head coach Dave Rennie. “But the officials saw what they saw, we have to be better at dealing with it.
“I’ve rapt without effort, we can’t fault the attitude but some of our decision making wasn;t good enough, we need to be more patient.
“We lacked composure with ball in hand, trying to pull off a miracle play, and we turned the ball over at crucial times.
“We’re disappointed, but in the end we have to look at us ahead of Cardiff next week.”
The first half ended with Glasgow frustrated about missed opportunities, the most glaring in five added minutes right on the break when they pounded at the Saracens line but left empty-handed.
An early Huw Jones break had the Scotstoun crowd out of their seats but when Saracens were caught offside on their 22, Adam Hastings missed a simple penalty chance wide to the right.
Almost inevitably Saracens made them pay when a speedy lineout drill and loop around Billy Vunipola sprung Sean Maitland into space down the left touchline. It looked like Alex Kozlowski in support had just hit the touchline but Saracens moved it swiftly away and eventually had the numbers for Rhodes to score, Owen Farrell converting.
An offside penalty on Alex Dunbar allowed the England international to stretch his team’s lead as Hastings got on the mark with his second penalty attempt, but there was a big escape for Glasgow when Saracens’ usually slick lineout maul routine went awry and they were penalised just as Jamie George looked certain to score.
If slightly fortunate then, the Warriors were definitely unlucky when Fraser Brown was harshly penalised for a minimal shove on Richard Wigglesworth and Farrell restored Saracens’ 10-point advantage from close range.
Right on the half a neck roll clearout by George Kruis offered an easy three points but they kicked for the corner and tried to maul that penalty and two more that followed.
However with Saracens on a yellow card warning, Kruis got a turnover, Glasgow were penalised for hands on the deck and the celebrations of crowd and players as DTH van der Merwe went over were premature as play was called back.
The Warriors found themselves under more relentless pressure as the second half began, but they rallied to withstand three separate lineout drives inside their own 22, and after 20 phases of Saracens attack they forced a fumble and a long Hastings kick raised the siege.
But the visitors’ defence had been watertight all afternoon, and in turn they threw back 18 phases of Warriors’ attack in their own 22 to preserve their advantage.
Replacement George Horne made one searing break in tandem with Lee Jones and substitute hooker George Turner broke through on another, but Saracens scrambled brilliantly first through a Kruis tackle and then Dave Strettle snaring a loose off-load.
Glasgow continued to turn down kickable penalties to eat into Saracens’ advantage but the lineout malfunctioned twice just when they needed it to set an attacking platform.
In the end they ran out of time chasing a try and a scoreless second half left them without even the consolation of a losing bonus point.
Glasgow: R Jackson; L Jones, H Jones, A Dunbar, DTH van der Merwe; A Hastings, A Price; O Kebble, F Brown, D Rae; J Gray, R Harley; R Wilson, C Gibbins, M Fagerson.
Replacements: G Turner for Brown 45, A Allan for Kebble 64, P du Plessis for Rae 54, G Peterson for Harley 75, C Fusaro for Wilson 60, G Horne for Price 64, P Horne for Dunbar 33, R Hughes for van der Merwe 64.
Saracens: A Goode; D Strettle, A Lozowski, B Barritt, S Maitland; O Farrell, R Wigglesworth; M Vunipola, J George, V Koch; W Skelton, G Kruis; M Itoje, M Thodes, B Vunipola.
Replacements: C Tolofua for Isiekwe 75, R Barrington for M Vunipola 21, T Lamositele for Koch 60, N Isiekwe for Skelton 57, J Wray from B Vunipola 51, B Spencer for Wigglesworth 60, A Lewington for Strettle 75.
Ref: M Raynal (FFR)