Rugby Union: Saints' Euro vision

Northampton 17 Saracens 10
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Europe beckons Northampton after an entertaining but rugged Courage League match at Franklins Gardens which saw the Saints leapfrog Saracens in the First Division table.

If it fell away in passion and commitment in the third quarter it was no surprise given the pace at which both sides, battling for a top-four finish, chose to play the match for the opening 40 minutes.

It was stirring stuff with both teams prepared to mix it at every opportunity and match each other in the entertainment stakes. After a dull period following the interval the match was brought back to life by Ian Hunter's try for Saints at the start of the last quarter which sealed victory for the home side.

There was no doubting the intensity of effort from all 30 players. But it had to be worth it. The British Isles trip to South Africa is not the only tour this summer. After the Lions have had their pick of the players there are some 30 places going begging for England's three-week trip to Argentina in the middle of May. The former Wales international Derek Quinnell was running the eye over likely recruits for the Lions, while John Elliott was performing a similar function for England. There was enough on show to please both men.

Saints were quickly into their stride from the kick-off and had the frustration of seeing Matt Allen's touchdown disallowed in the second minute. They eventually nosed in front with Paul Grayson's penalty.

But back came Saracens. A couple of telling high kicks launched by the former Australia fly-half Michael Lynagh had Saints on the retreat and some sleight of hand between Tony Diprose and his half-backs saw the open- side flanker Richard Hill go close.

But while the hopefuls such as Diprose and Greg Botterman of Saracens and Allen of Saints did their cause no harm at all it was an old master - the former France centre Philippe Sella - who struck the first blow. Sella, who won 111 caps for France, made a scorching break after being fed by the England new boy Hill and Saints were silenced temporarily. Lynagh added the conversion.

Hill went very close himself five minutes later but unfortunately put a foot into touch before grounding the ball. The effort was not totally in vain. It had been noted by, and met with the approval of, the observant Quinnell in the stand.

Hill's whole-hearted aggression and enterprise was a microcosm of the Saracens whole. At this stage in a tense encounter Lynagh was orchestrating his backs like the maestro he is. But they went off key just before the interval when they lost the scrum-half Kyran Bracken. He emerged limping after a collision with Saints' burly hooker Tim Beddow and hobbled off favouring his left ankle.

Northampton were also forced into a substitution, theirs coming during the interval. It brought Hunter into the action after Ireland's Jonathan Bell went off for treatment to bruised ribs, an injury which is expected to clear up before next Saturday's international against England in Dublin.

Unforced errors and poor options began to litter the play. Saints finally rose above this period of mediocrity when Beal weaved his way down the right wing, evading a number of desperate Saracen arms, before slipping the ball to Hunter who bulled his way over the line. Grayson's fourth penalty goal then settled it.

Northampton: N Beal; J Bell (I Hunter, 40), G Townsend, M Allen, H Thorneycroft; P Grayson, B Taylor; M Volland, T Beddow, M Stewart, J Phillips, J Chandler, S Tatupu, T Rodber (capt), B Pountney .

Saracens: A Tunningley; R Wallace, P Sella, S Ravenscroft, M Ebongalame; M Lynagh, K Bracken (P Friel, 37); T Daly, G Botterman, P Wallace, C Yandell, T Copsey, F Pienaar, T Diprose (capt), R Hill.

Referee: G Hughes (Runcorn).