Rugby Union: Pienaar has another special day

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Northampton 10 Saracens 25

A LITTLE under three years ago, Francois Pienaar received the World Cup trophy from a 20th-century political giant famously clad in a replica of his own shirt and, in the course of a single handshake, symbolised the rebirth of an entire nation. On Saturday, the same blond, bloodied South African spent 72 minutes hobbling around a soaking rectangle of East Midlands mud on a badly crocked ankle, cheered on only by several busloads of boozed-up Londoners wearing Tommy Cooper hats. A career in decline, you might think. Next stop, the Big Issue.

Try telling Pienaar he is on a one-way road to nowhere. Call him punch- drunk or question his sanity if you dare, but Watford's favourite former Springbok was deadly serious as he set about comparing two rugby experiences that, on the face of it, had about as much in common as Jeffrey Archer and Leo Tolstoy. "Believe me, there was pressure in '95," he said. "But you must also believe me when I say there was pressure, real pressure, on this game. I don't think I've ever felt quite so relieved at the end of a match. It was almost frightening, there was so much at stake."

Pienaar is not noted for talking through his hat - indeed, he is not exactly renowned for speaking in public at all - so we can only take him at his word. Saracens' staggeringly resourceful and utterly professional Tetley's Bitter Cup semi-final victory at Franklins Gardens stirred the great man's ferociously competitive soul, brought tears of satisfaction to his eyes and, dare we say it, gave him his biggest sporting kick since that epic July day in Johannesburg. It was that special.

Premiership defeat at Newcastle less than 72 hours previously had left Pienaar wondering whether his side could hope to live with a pumped-up Northampton outfit smack in the middle of a hot streak. He was overtly positive, of course, but in private, the demons of doubt were running amok. "I always believed our hearts would be in it, but what about our bodies? Could our bodies stand it? That was the question.

"Before we travelled to Newcastle we sat down and openly discussed how we should approach the Northampton game in the event of a setback. It was important to talk it through, to prepare ourselves for the tough call, but even so, the Thursday morning after Kingston Park was a very difficult time.

"We're a family at Saracens, though, and we have the ability to look each other in the eye and get things done. We realised another defeat would take the fizz out of our season and we weren't prepared to let it happen.

"Back in World Cup year, South Africa weren't expected to succeed. We were 9-1 for the title, anything but favourites. There was more pressure on this occasion because we faced the prospect of seeing an entire season wrecked in the space of four days. Speaking as a coach as well as a player, it's the sort of situation that gets to you. I can't say how proud I am of this result."

If Pienaar's own contribution was on the large side of immense, it was overshadowed by three performances of mind-boggling bravery. The two Irish tight forwards, Paul Wallace and Paddy Johns, shone like Davy Lamps at the coalface as they reduced Northampton's set-piece and line-out to a slag-heap of worthless rubble. Given that both had played for their country against Wales only a week before and then again in the Newcastle bearpit, their resilience bordered on the Herculean.

And then there was Kyran Bracken, almost certainly the finest English scrum-half since Richard Hill, and very definitely the bravest. Troubled by the injury to his left shoulder that cost him a cap against Scotland eight days ago, he suffered a minor dislocation as early as the 15th minute yet clenched his teeth, outplayed his great rival, Matt Dawson, more comprehensively than ever before and applied the finishing touches by creating two second- half tries for his fellow Bristol University graduate, Matt Singer.

The first, six minutes into the final quarter, was vintage Bracken, fully resonant of the precocious virtuosity he displayed as a student; a quick pick-up from the base of a scrum, a dummy to throw the back-row defence off the scent, a scamper into clear blue water and a grubber kick weighted so perfectly that Singer could scarcely fail to beat a flagging Harvey Thorneycroft to the touchdown.

And the second? Another low-gravity break, this time incorporating Steve Ravenscroft and Richard Wallace as support runners. One George Chuter ruck and an angled Gavin Johnson intervention later and Singer was away again.

"I first damaged my shoulder joint against the All Blacks at Old Trafford before Christmas and it seems to have a mind of its own, in so far as it pops in and out at will," said Bracken, whose brief taste of Lions action last summer left him in urgent need of an operation on his right shoulder. "To be honest, I thought I'd have to call it a day when it went again out there. Francois wasn't having any of it, though, so I had it heavily strapped and completely immobilised at half-time and got on with it." A courageous display indeed, but Clive Woodward, cocooned in his television commentary box, must have squirmed at the sight of it.

Poor Dawson, Northampton's captain for the day in the costly absence of Tim Rodber, will squirm even more when he recalls the ill-judged box kick that led to the visitors' opening try early in the second quarter. Richard Wallace fielded in space, Johns and the magnificent Tony Diprose worked the ball away from the tackle area and Johnson, whose long-term future at Saracens is by no means assured, made the important running to ease Ryan Constable's route to the right corner.

Yet such was Sarries' all-round mastery that had they not scored then, they would have have done so soon enough. The voyage from Southgate to Twickenham has been completed in the space of two short seasons and they remain a living, breathing contradiction of everything Cliff Brittle and his Rugby Football Union revisionists stand for. Northampton go by the nickname of "Saints", but it is their conquerors who deserve to be canonised.

Northampton: Try Sleightholme; Conversion Grayson; Penalty Grayson. Saracens: Tries Singer 2, Constable; Conversions Lynagh 2; Penalties Lynagh 2.

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, 64), M Stewart (M Volland, 74), J Phillips, J Chandler, D Mackinnon, G Seely, A 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, A Diprose (capt), F Pienaar (A Bennett, 72).

Referee: E Morrison (Bristol).