Saracens v Northampton – The Final Word

After an amazing season for both teams we somehow arrived at the end of May, how on earth that appeared so quickly I have no idea?  Before I get into the actual match shizzle I will as always go into my pre-match preparations!  I had a mission before the game, to pick up the *shakeshands* trophy.  The trophy is part of an amazing project started by Mark Horbury of the Sale Sharks #rugbyunited account; it’s a confirmation of the ethos of rugby in wishing your opponents luck before every game.  There are now over 60 club and country #rugbyunited accounts and the trophy has visited Gloucester, Munster, Leinster, Edinburgh and Glasgow amongst others.  I picked the trophy up from @rugbyquins man Henry to take it to Twickenham.  I had the absolute pleasure of meeting Peter of @rugbysaints before the game and we took to the hallowed turf to have some photos taken.  The plan was for the trophy to end up with the ultimate winner at the end of the game.

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And so now to the match report, this is going to be a tough one again.  I should probably warn some of my fellow Saracens fans, I am likely to comment on the officiating, but I won’t be bad mouthing the referee.  My thoughts in the stadium were that it was regrettable that he awarded a try then took it away, but I thought he had a good game on the whole.  That opinion may of course change when I watch the replay.  I had felt when the semi-finals played out that I would have preferred a rematch with Leicester Tigers; Northampton have become something of a bogie team in the last few years for Saracens.  But I knew that whatever the result, the game would be a cracker!  With an edge of bias I really hoped the game would go Saracens way, Jonny wasn’t the only player making a last appearance, Steve Borthwick was in the same position.  I’ve been lucky enough to get to know him a little in the last few months, as well as being a record holding player he’s also a thoroughly decent man.  80 minutes would see if he was to retire with a trophy in his hand.

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The teams emerged to the now traditional really hot flames!  I think Northampton must have been half empty, the stadium was very green!  Stephen Myler kicked off and Marcelo Bosch had his clearing kick charged down; not the best start for Saracens.  Schalk Brits looped round from the maul after the lineout making one of his, I’m really a flanker runs.  Saints were penalised for failing to roll away allowing Saracens a relieving kick.  However the advantage was lost as Matt Stevens strayed into the middle of the lineout, giving Saints a free kick.  It was clear we were going to see some top class performances from England players, as Ben Foden, Courtney Lawes and Luther Burrell shine early on for Saints.  A promising attack by Saints was halted after Alex Corbisiero knocked the ball on; George North had shown enormous strength early in the move as he literally swatted Steve Borthwick off.  The theme of knock ons continued as Mouritz Botha dropped the ball in the tackle as Saracens attacked; the game was being played at 100mph errors were bound to sneak in.  The first opportunity for points came as Saracens rolled forward after a lineout, with Corbisiero coming in at the side.  Owen Farrell who hadn’t been in his usually immaculate form kicked the conversion successfully.

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The Northampton line came under pressure after Luther Burrell put up a kick straight into Alex Goode’s hands.  Another man returning to the England shirt he kicked into touch, the smile on Wayne Barnes face was a picture as Goode attempted to claim the throw in!  Saracens attacked with the ball in hand after it was again kicked away; there was no way through the defence however.  Chris Ashton much maligned for his unsportsmanlike behaviour during the semi-final intercepted the ball in midfield the ball was taken by Jacques Burger who flipped up a ball to Botha.  Botha was virtually cut in 2 as Burrell pounced!  Lawes and Burrell were taking it in turns to cut the attacker down.  Owen Farrell put up a high kick which was taken brilliantly by David Strettle, Saracens were awarded a penalty, one that looked a little harsh.  Farrell did however take advantage taking the lead to 6 points.  It was Saracens turn to defend next and they put in their fair share of tackles, Goode kicked the ball away clearing the lines temporarily.  A penalty was awarded when Sam Dickinson was deemed to be offside; the kick was from a long distance and veered to the right of the posts.

The first scrum was set at 24 minutes, not quite as far into the game as the Wales v Oz game when it was to be the second half before the big men got to show their scrummaging skills.  By way of a pleasant change the scrum was successful at the first attempt.  Saracens built a good attack with Neil De Kock putting in a grubber kick for Strettle; Ken Pisi managed to guide the ball into touch with his knee.  The Saints forwards won the ball back after the lineout as their forwards messed up the Saracens maul.  Owen Farrell found a gap and went for it setting a good position for a Saracens attack but the ball was ultimately passed forward.  Ken Pisi made a brilliant break as the ball was passed from the scrum, with a run worthy of a try.  Burrell was on his shoulder the whole way, cleverly blocking Brad Barritt, but he passed to Kahn Fotuali’i, Saracens were penalised as they tried to defend their line.  Myler kicked to touch to the delight of the crowd.  A 2nd penalty was given for side entry and again was kicked to touch.  The tactic paid off as Saints spread the ball this time, the backs interchanged well with Ken Pisi flicking a lovely pass to Ben Foden in to send him in to score. Stephen Myler stepped up and converted the try to put Saints ahead.

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Saints went on the attack again with some wonderful handling by Fotuali’I and George North, the ball was knocked on to the relief of the defenders.  A very strange thing happened in the scrum as Burger left the scrum and ran to where he thought the ball was, rather than penalise him JP Doyle allowed the scrum to be reset.  The scrum collapsed twice and the penalty was awarded the way of Saracens.  The men in red and black rolled forward before spreading the ball; Farrell kicked a neat ball to force Fotuali’I to take the ball into touch.  Saracens were unable to take advantage of a great attacking position as the ball was turned over.  Saints were awarded a penalty from the resulting scrum and the half finished as Myler kicked the ball to touch.

The 2nd half started and with a 1 point gap the game was anybody’s.  Saracens started well but lost the ball, they were playing a very narrow game, which hadn’t been their strength this season; that wouldn’t be the way to breach a very strong Saints defence.  Alex Goode made a good break but the ball was knocked on by Barritt, a penalty had been awarded in the run up.  Farrell had a much easier kick this time and slotted the ball over the posts.  It was great to see him again do the Joining Jack sign, raising awareness of a great charity!  Neil De Kock made an error kicking the ball to touch having been warned that it had been taken back into the 22.  His error wasn’t to be punished as Myler threw a big pass straight into touch.  Jacques Burger had put in a huge hit on Alex Corbisiero in the build-up stopping the big prop in his tracks.  De Kock kicked the ball away; Fotuali’i caught the ball ensuring the put in by Saints.  The Saints attack was halted after Goode caught the ball after Myler kicked through; Tom Wood was penalised for tackling without his arms allowing Saracens the chance to clear their lines.

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A controversial moment happened as Saracens looked to clear the ball after facing an onslaught, Steve Borthwick flicked the ball back to Farrell who seemed to quite clearly knock the ball on; greater controversy was to take place later in the game.  George North who had looked very dangerous in attack knocked Farrell clean off his feet as he tried to tackle the Welsh winger, I question whether Farrell used his arms in the tackle.  With 25 minutes to go Saracens were still ahead by 2 points; a superb kick by Farrell put the ball back close to the Saints line.  Dylan Hartley had entered the fray and Tom Wood failed to take the ball, it went Saracens way.  This time they spread the ball but knocked it on, the play switched to the other end of the field and Myler again put in a grubber kick, George Pisi pounced onto the ball and scored!  The kick was a very challenging one; Myler slotted the ball over the posts.

On 61 minutes we had one of the more controversial moments of the game as Saracens at last spread the ball.  Alex Goode threw a pass to Chris Wyles that was clearly forward, Wyles passed inside to Farrell who ran in to score.  JP Doyle awarded the try; but we then saw replay after replay; Graham Hughes the TMO intervened asking Doyle if he was happy or wanted a review.  It has to be asked what the precedence is or in fact the law regarding a try that has already been awarded.  However the pass was indeed forward so it can also be argued that justice was done.  Not a moment I enjoyed as a Saracens fan but I think the Saints camp would have been very aggrieved if the score had stood.  Farrell exited the game at this point as he damaged his leg kicking the ball away in celebration.  Saracens went on the attack again with some ferocity, but the defence matched the attack and Hartley won his team a penalty to momentarily clear their lines.  Saracens were awarded a penalty but needed a try, they went for it and Marcelo Bosch scored after a great pass by Schalk Brits.  The scores were even, and Charlie Hodgson stepped up to take the kick that could have won the game; the ball hit the inside edge of the post however.  Amazingly the game approached 80 minutes with the scores tied and remained that way when the final whistle was blown.  We were in an extra time situation, I have to say my heart was pounding, I wasn’t sure another 20 minutes was bearable!  But I can only imagine how the men on the pitch having given their all were going to face a further 20!

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The extra time saw the same level of attritional play; Saints were given the 1st chance to kick at goal as Saracens were penalised for holding onto the ball.  Myler struck the ball beautifully to put his team ahead.  That wasn’t to last long as Saints were penalised in the scrum; Hodgson made no mistake this time and the scores were back to even. Saracens attacked and substitute Jackson Wray stormed through, the ball looked short of the line, but again the TMO intervened rather than this time, let play go on.  The try/non try was ruled out as Billy Vunipola had obstructed Dickinson.  The 1st half of extra time finished with the scores on Saracens 14 Northampton Saints 14.  Alex Waller had gone down very heavily towards the end of the half, but reappeared stitched up to return, hard to imagine he wasn’t concussed.  Charlie Hodgson was given the chance put his team ahead and he kicked an immense penalty.  With 7 minutes remaining Saints would just need a penalty kick to win the game as they’d scored more tries and after the extra 20 minutes that was to be the measure.  Saints went on the attack and were awarded a scrum close to the Saracens line when the ball was knocked on.  For the 3rd final in a row involving Saracens the last few minutes were to see them defending their line.  Stephen Myler ignored the drop goal option and Saints continued to batter the Saracens line.  With the final play of the game Saints were battering the Saracens line and Burrell went very close.  With time having been played Dylan Hartley leapt up sure he had scored.  The referee asked – ‘Try, yes or no?’  So the decision rested with the TMO again.  There was no way to tell in the stadium whether or not the ball was grounded on or over the line.  Having watched the replay again and again I’m still very unsure that the ball reached the line.  However the try was awarded and Northampton Saints finished a great season by lifting the Premiership Trophy, as wonderful for them as it was disappointing for Saracens.

Both teams had a wonderful season and both can be proud of what they achieved; very sad for Steve Borthwick to finish his career without the trophy his skill and passion deserved.  But, in the cold light of day, rugby is a game, a fantastic one, but only a game.  It isn’t life; to dedicate the win to Luis Ghaut a very brave 12 year old suffering a rare form of bonce cancer puts the whole thing into perspective.  For those that were there as I was, be pleased you were there to experience such an epic game and look forward to cheering your team on next season!

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