Rugby Union: Saracens hold nerve

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The Independent Online
Northampton 18

Saracens 21

WHEN THE Saracens coach Francois Pienaar recently conceded the league title to Leicester, he either forgot to tell his players or was simply studying towards a masters degree in kidology. His team called on remarkable depths of strength to carve out a victory at Northampton that put them right back in the championship race.

The majority of the biggest crowd at Franklin's Gardens this season may not have liked the result, but they were treated to an engrossing contest of fierce commitment and high drama. Not only did Saracens overcome the absence of the Ireland forwards Paul Wallace and Paddy Johns to international duty and the prop Roberto Grau to injury, but they also survived a double sin-binning and a nail-biting finale to move within three points of second- placed Northampton.

The Saints' pack threatened to monopolise proceedings in an opening half illuminated by the power of Pat Lam, Grant Seely and Jon Phillips, but Saracens drew strength from their second-half adversity to emerge victorious.

Northampton wasted little time in demonstrating the confidence they have in their forward strength, packing down a man light at the first scrum to deploy Lam at stand-off. The effect was immediate, the Samoan battering his way over the gain line to send Ben Cohen on a jinking run which ended just short of the line.

That set the tone for much of the opening period, yet Saracens defended with sufficient vigour to keep their tryline safe to the break.

Trailing by two Paul Grayson penalties to one from Gavin Johnson, Saracens looked to pose little danger from a scrappy line-out until a shimmy from Alain Penaud created a decisive break. The Frenchman found Brendon Daniel, who scooped up possession and rounded Matt Allen to score at the left flag, Johnson converting.

But by half-time the boot of Grayson had restored Northampton's advantage. Within 10 minutes of the restart, however, Saracens found themselves temporarily reduced to 13 men after Penaud and Pienaar were sin-binned.

Another Grayson penalty had extended Northampton's lead to 15-10 when Penaud became involved in some handbag-waving with Andy Blyth, earning him a 10-minute break. Pienaar soon followed. Northampton could only add a Grayson penalty in the international duo's absence, and within two minutes of their return the visitors conjured up a try that reduced the deficit to three points. Johnson surprisingly missed a simple conversion but quickly made amends by kicking the two penalties that sneaked his team back into a 21-18 lead.

Those of a nervous disposition should have left then. Three times Northampton bulldozed into kicking range, but three times Grayson failed by the narrowest of margins, his final effort hitting the crossbar.

Northampton: N Beal; B Cohen, D Dantiacq, A Blyth, H Thorneycroft (M Allen, 25-31); P Grayson, M Dawson (capt); G Pagel, F Mendez, M Hynes, J Phillips, R Metcalfe (S Hepher, 77), D Mackinnon (C Allan, 71), G Seely, P Lam.

Saracens: G Johnson; R Thirlby, R Constable, S Ravenscroft, B Daniel; A Penaud, K Bracken; D Flatman, G Shuter, B Reidy, K Chesney, D Grewcock, F Pienaar (capt), T Diprose, R Hill (P Ogilvie, 24).

Referee: G Warren (Bristol).