Having zoomed up to Wigan and back to watch a spot of rugby league my second game of the weekend found me making a much shorter 50 mile trip to the home of Saracens. At the business end of the season the visitors were Northampton Saints the team who came to Allianz Park to play in the semi-final of the Premiership last year, that game was pretty much men against boys as Saints went home as deserved winners. With Saracens sitting top with a 6 point lead and Saints second, both pride and the top spot were at stake with only 4 games remaining. I had an easy journey and a delightful pre-match as I joined fellow Saracens fans and corporate visitors in the 100 Club thanks to Saracens mad Alison Pearson and Karen Cresswell, a big thank you ladies! Having had a lovely lunch of roast beef and some great rugby chat I took my seat with a few nerves in evidence.
Northampton Saints emerged onto the pitch in what can only be described as a lurid green kit! Almost made them hard to spot on the bright green 4G pitch! Captain Steve Borthwick led out Saracens to tumultuous applause as he reached the milestone of 263 Premiership performances; a new record! Would his team mates help make the afternoon one to remember? Owen Farrell kicked off and Ben Foden returned the ball, it was great to see him back and fit. The referee made a real faux pas on just over 5 minutes as Stephen Myler at first appeared to knock on, only to miraculously tap the ball back; Saints were in a great attacking position but a knock on was given. Myler had a right to be rather miffed with that! Saracens won a penalty from the first scrum allowing them to get back into the Saints half. They gained little advantage however as the ball was knocked on. However a few minutes later David Strettle who has been a star since he arrived at Saracens benefited from a very neat grubber kick from Owen Farrell to run in and score the first try of the afternoon. The try made him joint top try scorer in the Premiership this season with 10 tries in that competition. As many Saracens fans did the weird wiggly finger thing Farrell kicked but failed to convert the try. Having made a fairly huge tackle a few plays before the try Strettle went in for a similar tackle and seemed to land very awkwardly, he was to leave the pitch for a concussion check not long after.
The next scrum penalty went the way of the men in green as the front row collapsed; from the stands it really can look at times as if the ref makes random decisions. Stephen Myler a fairly immaculate kicker at the best of times slotted the ball over to narrow the gap to 2 points. Listening to the commentators as I watch the game again it’s very nice to hear praise for Owen Farrell as they watch the rerun of the try. Samu Manoa put Saints ahead after a very strong driving maul by his team; except the ref awarded a penalty try which meant he didn’t get the try against his name! A clear advantage for Myler to get the kick right in front of the posts but a tad annoying for Samoa! Kelly Brown went over the lone for Saracens after a great run of play by his team, with Schalk Brits in particular making a great break. It did look to me as if James Johnston knocked the ball on. Strangely the potential knock on wasn’t checked rather a late ish tackle by Callum Clark on Owen Farrell. This time the wiggly fingers worked taking the scores to Saracens 12 Northampton 10. The TV replay did actually show that Johnston didn’t touch the ball, so a fair try. Saracens attacked again sending the ball form one side of the pitch to the other; play continued while Johnston was receiving treatment, a Saints player being in effect taken out by the medics working on him. Marcelo Bosch much to the disgust of the people sitting behind me chose to take the ball into contact when he should have passed. It never ceases to amaze me how many ‘professional’ players sit in the crowd week in week out!
Saracens were the beneficiaries of the next scrum penalty; I do at times wonder if that’s becoming the sole purpose of scrums! Farrell failed to convert the penalty. Stephen Myler used his rugby brain well to take a kick from Farrell with one foot over the line sending the line out right back to where the kick was taken. Having taken a couple of immensely hard hits first from Callum Clarke then Courtney Lawes, Farrell looked a little delicate as he kicked. Marcelo Bosch lined up what looked like an impossible kick from within his own half, he started to get back in the good books as he took barely a step and made both the distance and direction easily! Saracens were awarded another penalty after Saints had tried to no avail to play their way out of their own half; Bosch again very casually stepped up and scored. Northampton did manage to get the ball through hands close to half time but lost the ball allowing Saracens the chance to attack again. George North who had been fairly anonymous collected the ball brilliantly from another Farrell kick, saving a certain try; Saracens had been awarded a penalty however and Farrell scored this time. The teams went in with the scores at Saracens 21 Saints 10.
Owen Farrell didn’t emerge for the second half, well not onto the pitch, he did sit on the bench with an ice pack on his foot however. Northampton started with a good attack but to no avail, the first half had been a surprise as the stars all over the pitch didn’t really seem to click. First scrum penalty of the half followed the see saw theme and went Saints way; Myler kicked to touch. Charlie Hodgson had come on in place but Bosch took some responsibility for the kicking game, kicking very neatly to touch. With 8 minutes on the clock Saracens again played the ball across the field and back again with the ball being passed by both backs and forwards, an exciting move but the ball was knocked on. Manoa played the ball well from the base of the scrum releasing Lee Dickson, again to no benefit as a penalty was given away. A further penalty was given away by Callum Clark within kicking distance, this time? Charlie Hodgson missed the kick. Billy Vuniploa caught the cleared kick and virtually ran over a very tough Courtney Lawes. Marcelo Bosch caused the Saracens fans behind me to take back their early criticism as he added a try to his tally after Saracens kept the ball alive, again forwards and backs combining. Hodgson stepped up to take a much harder kick and converted the try to take the score to Saracens 28 Saints 10.
Now with a game that had been realistically pretty much dominated by Saracens you would have thought the result was a foregone conclusion, but oh no! Northampton had other plans. There was a fairly messy phase of play with both teams being rather out of sorts; Phil Dowson came on for Saints and seemed to add something to his teams’ play. Then Matt Stevens, who had entered the fray as a replacement, was sent to the sin bin for the final 10 minutes after a number of penalties awarded against Saracens. He committed an offence for sure but possibly took a card for the team. Northampton wasted their first attacking opportunity with the ball going forward yet again; however they made no mistake moments later as they won the ball after a Saracens scrum, Stephen Myler ran through with the ball won by his forwards in the ruck, popping a lovely pass to Luther Burrell who scored; with his very fingertips! Great skill by the England Centre. Myler added the extras. Saints weren’t finished with their try scoring and made the most of having an extra man. George North scored almost immediately in spite of what had looked to many like a knock on. The ball wasn’t knocked on, that you could see from where I was sitting, a try was rightly awarded. Again Stephen Myler kicked and converted the try to close the gap to 4 points! A very nerve wracking final 4 minutes then for the home team! In spite of their late best efforts Northampton weren’t to go home as victors this day as Saracens held out. A game that had looked well out of reach for Saints was very nearly turned around; as it was they travelled back with a bonus point in the bag. With 3 games remaining the top of the table isn’t quite cemented but Saracens don’t have too much to do to be certain of a home semi-final. The same can be said for Northampton, an interesting few weeks to come!