Rugby Union: Bracken's final warning

Tetley's Bitter Cup semi-finals: Saracens realise their Twickenham dream to set up an all-London showpiece; Northampton 10 Saracens 25
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The Independent Online
SARACENS' much cherished and long-awaited place in the Tetley's Bitter Cup final at Twickenham hinged on a delightful demonstration of the scrum-half's art by Kyran Bracken and on Northampton's lengthy encampment inside the opposition 22 just before half-time. Seven points adrift at that stage but looking the livelier side, Northampton had been deluded into thinking that the route to victory lay through the scrummage, despite conclusive evidence to the contrary. On three previous occasions they had been repelled by the Saracens front row but in the vain hope that it would be a case of fourth-time lucky they went for the shove only to concede a penalty, 40 yards of ground and very probably the match.

The second half was torture for them as Saracens pressed home their advantage up front and exploited Northampton's uncertainty both fore and aft. There was no doubt that they badly missed their captain, Tim Rodber, not only for his driving strength and the corrosive power of his tackling but also in the vital area of communication between back row and scrum-half. Quite simply, Northampton made far too many wrong decisions and in this Matt Dawson, captain for the day, was one of the chief culprits.

His difficulties were, if anything, highlighted by the virtuosity of his opposite number, Bracken. His ability to break around the fringe of the rucks and mauls caused Northampton's back-row defence all manner of problems and, even more importantly, enabled Saracens to get more players wide out into running positions. One of the chief beneficiaries of this was Matt Singer, who came on as a replacement early in the second half for the injured Philippe Sella. Playing on the wing Singer scored two sparkling tries, both of them ignited by Bracken's darting breaks.

Michael Lynagh was another hugely influential figure. His instinctive awareness of what to do and when to do it was in itself, worthy of a master- class lesson. His clever use of the contours of the pitch to prod and push teasing kicks into space had poor Ian Hunter running round in ever- decreasing circles. Once again this was in marked contrast to Northampton's stuttering attempts to find some measure of continuity. Time and again they took the wrong option and against a defence as tight and well-disciplined as Saracens, there was no way through.

When eventually they did find a gap and Jon Sleightholme was quick enough to slip through it, the game was already lost and Saracens' place in the final for the first time in their history was assured.

There could be no denying that they fully deserved it. Their three tries had been scored by the wingers, Ryan Constable getting the first to break the deadlock of two penalties, one apiece kicked by Lynagh and Paul Grayson. Dawson's high kick out of defence was fielded by Richard Wallace and with Gavin Johnson filling in at fly-half the ball moved slickly down the line to Constable. Lynagh's conversion and, following Saracen's survival of Northampton's onslaught, his second penalty 12 minutes into the second half sent Saracens on their way. The kick had been awarded following a calamitous error when Grant Seely's wayward pass behind Hunter had been picked up by Bracken and Hunter, in desperation to repair the damage, had impeded the scrum-half.

Bracken's quick thinking was in evidence shortly afterwards to even deadlier effect. From a scrum just outside its 22 he broke blind, chipped over Hunter and Singer, following up, collected the favourable bounce to score. Five minutes later the winger had scored his second. This time it was Bracken's break down the left which opened Northampton's defence and exposed them to Singer's finishing power.

For Saracens, who had suffered a league defeat to Newcastle in midweek, and whose championship aspirations had all but vanished as a result ,it was an impressive display of resilience and character. They are a fine side certain to grace a Twickenham final.

Northampton: I Hunter; J Sleightholme, G Townsend, M Allen (A Northey, 67), H Thorneycroft; P Grayson, M Dawson (capt); G Pagel, A Clarke (C Johnson, 63), M Stewart (M Volland, 74), J Phillips, J Chandler, D MacKinnon, G Seely, B Pountney.

Saracens: G Johnson; R Constable, P Sella (M Singer, 45), S Ravenscroft, R Wallace; M Lynagh, K Bracken; R Grau, G Chuter, P Wallace, P Johns, D Grewcock, B Sturnham, T Diprose (capt), F Pienaar (A Bennett, 71).

Referee: E Morrison (Bristol)