Saracens edged nearer this season's Heineken Cup quarter-finals with a hard-fought 31-26 victory over Ospreys in their clash at Wembley Stadium.
The Premiership champions, beaten by Biarritz in their last euro outing, took charge of Pool 5 with a gutsy display in front of a bumper crowd of 41,036 fans who were treated to an enthralling see-saw battle plagued by penalties but blessed with e odd moment of brilliance. First-half tries from prop Rhys Gill and flanker Ernst Joubert and the boot of England hopeful Owen Farrell put Sarries in charge at the break but it needed winger Chris Wyles' score after the break to deny a determined Ospreys who pushed their hosts all the way thanks to a brace of tries from centre Ashley Beck.
Ospreys playmaker Dan Biggar had threatened to spoil the party but the Welsh side had to settle for a bonus point and must hope for better in the rematch in Swansea next weekend. In contrast, Sarries' sixth win from seven visits to the traditional home of English rugby, along with Biarritz' defeat at Treviso earlier in the day, leaves the Men in Black firmly in control of their own European destiny.
Sarries began strongly, with their forward pack making an ominous incision into Ospreys territory before an excellent long pass from fly-half Charlie Hodgson found fullback Alex Goode and in turn winger Chris Wyles, who was bundled into touch just short. Ospreys failed to clear the danger, with Joubert stealing the lineout before Gill burrowed over from close range with a little help from his friends.
Farrell's conversion cemented their lead but Biggar immediately set about chipping away at their advantage with a superb long-range penalty after his forwards had forced their Sarries counterparts into infringing on halfway. The tit-for-tat exchange continued a couple of minutes later, with Farrell notching his second penalty after another blistering break from Sarries drew the error from the visitors.
However, Saracens did not have a monopoly on the running rugby, with Beck unlocking the home side's defence with a neat chip through. Winger Tommy Bowe claimed the loose ball before losing it in contact but Beck was there to scoop up the scraps and outpace the splintered cover defence to the line.
Biggar's conversion had barely bisected the posts before Saracens were celebrating again. A scrum on the Ospreys' 22, after a dubious forward pass call against Ospreys, allowed the Saracens pack to turn the screw, with Joubert dancing out of a weak tackle from flanker Tom Smith before striding away to the line for a score that was again converted by Farrell.
Back came Ospreys, with the dancing feet of flanker Justin Tipuric taking him out of the clutches of the Saracens defence and into the 22, where further pressure led to Biggar's latest penalty. The Saracens pack responded by claiming a minor victory at the next scrum but Farrell's otherwise reliable radar let him down. But as is their way, Saracens did not dwell on the setback, with the ball-hungry Goode igniting the next raid that resulted in a simple kick for Farrell.
The task facing Ospreys became a little harder as the half drew to a close with a yellow card for Smith, who was sent to the sin-bin after infringing at a scrum, and his exit was swiftly followed by Farrell's latest kick, which gave the hosts a 10-point cushion at the break.
A penalty against flanker Jacques Burger in the opening moments of the second half allowed Biggar to reduce the arrears but they were soon chasing the game again. Saracens carved out a great try with a patient build-up of slick passing punctuated with a sublime reverse flick inside from hooker Schalk Brits - back in the line-up after a three-game suspension - falling into the hands of on-rushing Wyles, who had the pace and strength to force his way over for the score.
Farrell was wayward with the conversion attempt and so was Biggar with his next effort as he looked to keep his side in touch. Biggar's invention with ball in hand did not suffer from the same shortcomings with a chip and chase drawing a penalty against Farrell, who was shown a yellow card for his shoulder check on the Ospreys playmaker. But Biggar was unable to make Sarries pay further with his kick from halfway dropping short.
The penalty count continued to climb with scrum-half Ben Spencer the next to try his luck and fail before Ospreys pounced to blow the game open once again. Fullback Richard Fussell exploited a narrow avenue of opportunity down the shortside before delaying a pass to Beck, who did well to lay claim to the ball before scampering over for his second try of the night.
Biggar landed the extras before Farrell returned to the fray but the break did little to alleviate his kicking woes with his next attempt pulled wide of the posts. Bristling with confidence, Ospreys piled forward but were almost caught with a classic sucker punch, with lock Jonathan Thomas forced into desperate measures inside his own in-goal area after centre Andrew Bishop slipped as he attempted to take a pass from Biggar under his own crossbar.
A timely shunt at the resulting scrum drew yet another penalty that Farrell duly slotted to take Ospreys out of bonus point range - but not for long. A second clearance kick from Farrell was charged down inside his own 22 and the Ospreys pounced to earn Biggar the chance to close the gap once more but that would be as close as they would get with Sarries holding on for the crucial win.