Sometimes rugby games can come down to the tiniest of margins – a knock on, a missed tackle, a distractingly well-endowed streaker – and it always serves to remind you of the constant pressure that is on the players at the highest level. As they often say, rugby is a game of inches. Actually, that's what the excellent Al Pacino says about American Football in the superb Any Given Sunday, but I think it applies equally to our (better) version of the oval ball game. So sure, rugby is a game of inches. But an entire season coming down to that margin? In fact, not even inches – think half an inch. A millimetre even. That can be the difference between total glory and total dejection; between knowing that your 9 months of slugging away at training have all been worth it and knowing that it has all been for nothing.
That really brings those tiny margins under the microscope. In fairness, when Saracens lined up against Northampton in the Premiership Final on Saturday, we all knew it was going to be pant-browningly tight. The sort of game that would come down to your standard small margins. What none of us could have anticipated though, was just how small that margin would be.
Both sides were in this final squarely on merit. Saracens had been the dominant force in England this season, sweeping aside almost anyone who tried to stand before them and losing only 3 times – to Saints away, a surprise loss to London Irish at home and to Leicester away, when they sent over their 3rd XV. Their power-based game had come on in leaps and bounds with the Vunipola brothers at their barnstorming best, but their attacking game out wide has also caught the eye – with Owen Farrell beginning to attack the line and vary his game effectively and Chris Ashton storming back into form. Northampton, though, have been just as impressive – if not quite as consistent. With Saracens, they were the standout side, with power, pace and guile stuffed throughout their teamsheet – and any team who can boast the likes of the Pisi brothers, George North, Luther Burrell, Tom Wood and Courtney Lawes is bound to cause some mental and physical headaches to any side. They also had vengeance on their mind – so close to glory last year (an ill-judged turn of phrase by captain Dylan Hartley, in fact), but this year they are firmly out of the shadows and into the limelight.
And with all the attention focused on the Twickenham turf on Saturday afternoon, the game got off to a ferocious start – if a little nervous and scrappy. It was Saints who had the majority of possession in the opening exchanges, with Courtney Lawes and Luther Burrell both carrying with menace into the heart of the Saracens defence. As we have seen so many times this season, though, the men in black and red were playing by their mantra of 'thou shalt not pass', and were crashing into their opponents with relish, with Jacques Burger proving typically destructive in this area, although he was ably backed up by Mauritz Botha. Saints were frustrated; and Saracens had the points. Two penalties in the first quarter – one for a breakdown offence, the other for an illegal challenge by Ken Pisi – led to Owen Farrell coolly slotting the points and giving his side a rather handy 6 point lead.
It was Ken Pisi, though who would prove to be the catalyst for his side's breakthrough just before half-time. The remainder of the half had continued in its scrappy fashion, but Sarries were starting to gain territory thanks to some exciting running from Chris Ashton and a couple of trademark rumbles from Billy Vunipola, despite it seeming that the big man was operating at 80% due to an ankle complaint. Their pressure had pinned Northampton back, but from a scrum by their own line, Pisi stepped inside Myler and jinked past the cover to scorch 80 metres up field before being caught by a superb cover tackle from Ashton. A couple of penalties later, however, and Saints launched a devastating close range attack where gorgeous hands from Stephen Myler, Burrell and Pisi put Ben Foden over for the game's first try. With Myler's conversion it was 7 – 6 at half time. Advantage Saints.
If the first half had been a little stop-start until the end, the second half was anything but, as the precision and intensity of the game went up the gears. It was Saracens who maintained the early pressure, despite a thunderous hit from Tom Wood on Jaques Burger shaking the entire stadium, and Alex Goode made a couple of incisive breaks to induce a breakdown penalty from the Saints pack. A simple kick from Farrell put the Londoners back into the lead.
But Northampton were starting to get an ominous hold on the game. Sam Dickinson was beginning to dominate in the collisions and the behemoth that is George North, lurking on the left wing, was seeing more and more of the ball as Saints began to exploit the wide channels. Twice Sarries had Ashton to thank for preventing a try – once after rushing up and putting in a big hit to prevent the use of an overlap, and then after a great chase back and cover tackle on North after Saints had exploited an absence of Saracens defenders on the left. It would prove to be a temporary respite though. Vunipola spilled a high kick – not for the first time – and Myler and Burrell put the ball wide to North, who went within 5 metres before being hauled down by Ashton. There shouts of 'forward' in relation to Burrell's pass – but, despite it moving a good 3 metres forward on the pitch, the momentum of the players was such that it would have been harsh to call. From there, Myler put in a delightful grubber kick for George Pisi to chase and dot down, with the fly half following up his good work with a superb conversion from out wide to make the score 14 – 9. In a game as tight as this, that was daylight.
I say the game was tight, I mean it was evenly matched, because in truth it was getting more open and more frantic. Three minutes later, and Sarries thought they had equalised, as Goode put Chris Wyles away with a floated – and blatantly forward – pass, allowing the American to draw the last man and put Farrell in for the try. JP Doyle awarded the try, but whilst Farrell was receiving treatment for cramp, TMO Graham Hughes requested a review, and the try was duly overturned. It was the right call, but completely the wrong way to go about it; in my view, once the try has been awarded, it should stand – the tragedy was Saracens was that, if Farrell hadn't been injured, he could have taken the conversion by the time the try was struck off, meaning that the score would have stood. As it were, the Londoners were dealt a double blow as they saw their try disallowed and their fly-half leave the field with severe cramp.
Sarries tried their utmost to get into the game but they were rocked backwards time and again by a brutal Saints defence, that was reminiscent of Saracens' own 'wolf pack' brand. In particular, Lawes was phenomenal – everywhere in defence and causing all sorts of problems in the lineout, and there was one hit on replacement Charlie Hodgson which surely goes on his highlights reel. Sarries, to their credit, held on though, and began to bludgeon their way forward through Brad Barritt and Vunipola, and they were given their reward when Schalk Brits drew in George North and popped a delightful offload over the top to Marcelo Bosch, who was squeezed over from close range. Now Sarries were level with a conversion still to come. Charlie Hodgson struck the conversion sweetly, but it clipped the inside of the post and bounced away. An inch to the left, and it would have gone over. Small margins.
The teams scrapped on, exhausted. Full time was blown, meaning that the shattered bodies had to rouse themselves for one last effort in the 20 minutes of extra time. It was gruelling watching for the neutral – goodness knows what the fans were going through. The extra time period seemed to pass in a bit of a haze, punctured only when Ashton – who had had a fine game – screamed through a gap to bring Saracens within metres of the Saints line, before being called back for a Vunipola obstruction. This, again, was a controversial moment in my eyes. No try had been scored, and the ball was in open play when the TMO intervened and called play back. Once again, it was the correct decision – there had been a block – but we are getting into dangerous territory if the TMO starts calling back play without the referee's request. In this case, Doyle had missed the block and Sarries had a great opportunity on the Saints line. Instead, the Londoners had to settle for 2 Hodgson penalties sandwiching an effort from Myler. It would be enough.
But Northampton did not give in. Instead, their pack hammered away at the exhausted Saracens 8, clawing their way towards the line, inch by inch. Hartley, returning from injury and full of determination and a desire for redemption, bullocked his was forward, with Lawes and Dowson offering support. They went within 5 metres. The clock went red. Surely now Myler would go for a drop goal, especially as a draw would give Saints the win, owing to the little known (and frankly odd) rule that the team who has scored the most tries is awarded the victory if the scores are tied at the end of extra time. But he didn't. Instead Saints continued to ruck their way forward. Two metres out. Somebody flies off their feet in the ruck, but JP Doyle misses it. One metre. Is somebody in from the side. Again, no whistle. Then, out of nowhere, the cheers go up. Alex Waller, the mobile and talented looshead, emerges with the ball – inevitably, we go upstairs to the TMO.
Graham Hughes looked at every angle – and I personally cannot make my mind up about it, it is that close. It is either a millimetre over the line or a millimetre short. Never before has the phrase 'benefit of the doubt to the attacking side' bore more relevance. Hughes decided bravely – and probably, in all the circumstances, correctly – to award the try. Myler's conversion was needless, but slotted anyway. Saints had the title in their hands for the first time and, despite the difference being a millimetre, on the balance of play you had to feel they deserved it.
Equally, you had to feel for Saracens. Two soul-shattering defeats in less than a week will have left them reeling, but they'll be back with vengeance next year – which is worrying for everybody else. For Northampton though, they can reflect on a remarkable season where they have achieved the double – OK, not the double, but the Amlin Cup is not to be sniffed at – and reached the heights their potential has demanded for so many seasons. Always the bridesmaid, never the bride, that was Northampton. As Dylan Hartley lifted the Premiership title, you got the impression that those days are over.
Alex Goode – 7 – Lively in attack and solid under the high ball.
Chris Ashton – 8 – Excellent in a losing cause. Work rate in attack and defence was exceptional.
Marcelo Bosch – 6 – The gaps weren't there for him but he was on hand to finish well for his try.
Brad Barritt – 6 – Worked his socks off and carried aggressively but with limited reward.
Dave Strettle – 5 – Caught all at sea on a couple of occasions in defence and didn't see the ball.
Owen Farrell – 7 – A good display from the tee and with the ball in hand. Unlucky not to be on the scoreboard.
Neil de Kock – 6 – Service was solid but kicks weren't always on the money.
Richard Barrington – 6 – Held up the scrum well but lacked Mako's prowess in the loose.
Schalk Brits – 6 – A little shakey in the lineout but a marvellous offload delivered a score after a difficult day with the ball in hand.
Matt Stevens – 6 – Generally on top in the scrum and not too many penalties given way, which is a bonus for him.
Steve Borthwick – 6 – Led from the front but as the game opened up his influenced waned.
Mauritz Botha – 7 – Part of a ferocious defensive effort and weighed in with some big hits when on the field.
Kelly Brown – 5 – Just doesn't influence the game enough for me. He is solid but rarely causes the opposition problems.
Jaques Burger – 6 – Looked fairly one dimensional. Flew into a couple of big hits but contributed little else.
Billy Vunipola – 6 – Some decent rumbles but he didn't look 100%. Fluffed a few high balls as well.
Everybody offered a full-blooded commitment to the cause, but it was Chris Wyles and Charlie Hodgson who caught the eye in attack.
Northampton Player Ratings
Ben Foden – 7 – A couple of promising darts and a smart finish lit up an otherwise quiet day.
Ken Pisi – 8 – Brought the game to life with dazzling feet and hands in the build-up to the first try.
George Pisi – 6 – Finished his try well but was otherwise relatively quiet.
Luther Burrell – 7 – Hard running and smooth passing glued the Saints attack together. Just don't kick, Luther.
George North – 7 – Grew into the game, and made some spectacular runs and collisions. Still could have got more involved, though.
Stephen Myler – 9 – Never flustered. Wonderful kicking from hand and varied play perfectly throughout.
Kahn Fotuali'I – 6 – Never managed to exploit the fringes but was busy nonetheless.
Alex Corbisiero – 6 – Not at his best in the scrum but worked his socks off in the loose in a promising comeback.
Mike Haywood – 6 – Busy and aggressive, the lineout went OK and he put himself about at the breakdown
Salesi Ma'afu – 6 – No punches this time. Was fairly quiet but was solid in the scrum.
Samu Manoa – 7 – Not many fireworks but his mere presence gave menace to the Saints defensive line.
Courtney Lawes – 9 – Phenomenal. Colossal in defence, carried well, and ruled the lineout. Man of the Match.
Calum Clarke – 6 – Not at his most influential, although he put everything into it. Dowson added more.
Tom Wood – 8 – An awesome defensive display. Led from the front and upped his physicality.
Sam Dickinson – 7 – We didn’t see too many bulldozing carries but he left some sore bodies with his hits.
Alex Waller obviously had the biggest influence with a superb cameo and try from the bench, but Dowson impressed me as well with his work-rate and carrying. Lee Dickson added customary zip.