It’s not too often that the top two sides in the league can go head to head in such completely different moods. Saracens, the showboaters of Premiership Rugby, could swan into this encounter off the back of 6 consecutive Premiership victories, a world-record club rugby crowd at Wembley, a Heineken Cup quarter final victory away from home and a fun-filled trip to New York thrown in for good measure. They couldn’t have been looking more smug if their pre-match massages were conducted by the models of the latest Victoria’s Secret catalogue.
Saints, meanwhile, may be sitting second, but 2 consecutive defeats in the league to Sale and to arch-enemies Leicester have taken the sting out of their season, along with an LV=Cup Final defeat to Leicester. They of course still have a fantastic side, and with anyone else you would shrug this off as a blip, but Saints have been here too many times. Too many times they have been so near, but ended so far. But perhaps things were starting to look up as they headed to Allianz Park on Sunday. A victory in the Amlin Cup over Sale got them back to winning ways and a week spent in warm weather training in Lanzarote should surely have had them refreshed and recharged for the big run-in. Although, before kick off, judging from some of the tans on show, it was hard not to suspect that there may have been a little bit too much sunbathing...
It certainly didn’t seem like this was the case at first though, as Samu Manoa timed his run out of defence perfectly to wallop Kelly Brown backwards in a monstrous hit, before Christian Day grabbed the collector’s item which is a stolen ball from the Saracens lineout. The problem for Saints was, though, that it was Sarries who had all the possession in the opening exchanges – and they have a habit of making it count. This proved to be the case after 8 minutes when, following good link up play in the middle of the park by Schalk Brits and Jackson Wray, Owen Farrell intelligently switched play back to the narrow side where the Northampton front row were defending and dropped a perfectly placed grubber in behind them for chief poacher David Strettle to gather and touch-down. It was perfectly executed and delightfully subtle from Farrell and, although his conversion was miscued, it meant that the hosts had the perfect start.
Northampton, though, have been stung by the mutterings of another season coming off the rails at the crucial time, and they launched an immediate riposte. After Stephen Myler had punished a Saracens’ scrum infringement with 3 points from the tee in the 14th minute, the visitors fell back on their most potent weapon – the driving maul – to blast the league leaders’ pack back 25 metres from a lineout. The maul was being driven forward at a rate of knots and, although Samu Manoa looked to have eventually plunged over, referee Matthew Carley awarded a penalty try. Suddenly, Saints were 10 – 5 to the good. Was another home mauling against the same opposition on the cards for the men in black?
3 minutes later, the crowd had an emphatic answer, as Sarries scored one of the tries of the season. Breaking from within his own half, hooker Brits stepped inside centre George Pisi and accelerated out of Courtney Lawes’ despairing dive to carve the visitors’ defence wide open. The South African offloaded to Chris Ashton, who was well caught, but the ball made its way wide to the right hand touchline via an optimistic offload from Mouritz Botha and a grizzled flick on from skipper Steve Borthwick, who was making a record 263rd Premiership appearance, before ending up in the hands of Brown, giving the Scottish captain the chance to step inside and dive over the line. Farrell added a superb conversion, and the hosts were back in the lead.
Saracens now assumed full control of the game, with some superb offloads from Brits keeping the defence back-peddling and a couple of thunderous charges from Mako Vunipola scattering would-be tacklers all over the pitch. Saints did offer some hard-hitting resistance, as both Calum Clark and Courtney Lawes introduced their shoulders to Farrell’s rib-cage, but all the invention and – most importantly – were all coming from the home side. Argentinean centre Marcelo Bosch stepped up to casually swipe over a couple of monster penalties – one from a colossal 58 metres – before Farrell added the final points of the half. The England 10 looked worse for wear following some of the rough treatment and was withdrawn at half time with a foot injury, but even that couldn’t take the gloss off a 21 – 10 halftime score in favour of the Londoners.
George North made his first impact in the game after half time by going on a promising charge, but it proved to be a false dawn as Sarries continued to hold all the possession and trouble the visitors with their creativity and power. After Farrell’s replacement, veteran Charlie Hodgson, had missed a penalty attempt following an infringement at a maul by Clark, the hosts were crossing the tryline again. A poor pass by Myler was fumbled by Pisi and Wigglesworth made the most of possession to weave within 5 metres of the line. The ball was shipped left, where good hands from Botha and Ashton kept the ball alive before Bosch burrowed his way over for his side’s third try. The hosts now not only had an 18 point lead after Hodgson’s conversion, but they were eying up a bonus point.
The cynical man could start to claim that this was yet another example of Saints’ season going into meltdown at the key time. But then, in the last 10 minutes, with Saracens seemingly cruising, that all changed. Substitute Matt Stevens had been performing his customary role of giving away as many penalties as possible and was sent to the bin for his efforts, and this seem to finally give Saints the zip that had been missing in their ball-retention and midfield play all game. From a lineout, England man Luther Burrell hit an excellent line off Stephen Myler to break through and touch down at full stretch with his finger tips by the posts, to bring the score to 27 – 17. Then, barely 2 minutes later, they were at it again as the hosts went into full retreat, with Myler, Burrell and substitute James Wilson attacking the blindside. Ashton looked as if he had done well to strip the ball from the Kiwi, but George North gathered up the crumbs to crash over in the corner which – after Myler’s magnificent kick – pulled the visitors back within 4 points. Now that punch, that swagger, that intensity that has made Northampton unplayable at times this season was back on display. Sarries were on the ropes – could they complete one of the great comebacks and re-announce themselves as the team to beat in the race for the title?
Ultimately, no. Billy Vunipola won a turnover with time up to allow the hosts to clear their lines and claim a win that, realistically guarantees that they will finish top of the pile for the second consecutive season. But for Northampton, the key will be in what those last frantic, impressive 10 minutes will mean. Are they indicative of a side that will come close but doesn’t do enough to go all the way? Or will it kick start their season once again? Time will tell.
What else was happening in the Aviva Premiership this weekend?
Sale Sharks 12 – 27 Harlequins: Quins emphatically put a stamp on Sale's late-run as playoff chasers, and in doing so kept their own hopes alive. The hosts scored first and last though Tom Brady and a penalty score, but the visitors picked up a superb bonus point with Nick Evans, Danny Care, Sam Smith and Maurie Fa'asavalu all crossing.
Gloucester 17 – 18 Bath Rugby: A last minute penalty try gave the spoils of a chaotic West Country derby to Bath. The visitors had scored first through Stuart Hooper but Henry Trinder looked to have brought it back for the hosts, although the real talking point was the 2 red cards and 5 yellows dished out by Tim Wigglesworth as the Cherry and Whites finished the game with 11 men.
Worcester Warriors 33 – 38 Exeter Chiefs: The Warriors bravely claimed two bonus points but ultimately fell to defeat against the Chiefs, leaving their survival hopes hanging by a thread. The visitors scored tries through Dave Lewis, Sam Hill, Gareth Steenson and Jack Yeandle (2), whilst the Warriors fought back with scores from Chris Pennell, David Lemi (2) and Agustin Creevy.
Leicester Tigers 27 – 15 London Wasps: Leicester kept up their traditional late-season surge with a bonus point win at home to Wasps. The Tigers grabbed 4 tries through Manu Tuilagi (2), Niki Goneva and David Mele, with Wasps responding through Guy Thompson and Tommy Bell.
London Irish 40 – 12 Newcastle Falcons: London Irish blitzed the Falcons with a first-half try-fest that left Newcastle director of rugby fuming, despite holding the hosts to a scoreless second period. The hosts scored the only 5-pointers, with Andy Fenby (3). Fergus Mulchrone, Eamon Sheridan and Gerard Ellis all touching down.