The great and good of Northampton take a very dim view of Saracens: they do not much like the outspokenness of their management, object to the boisterousness of their supporters and cannot stand the aural assault that passes for their victory song, which manages to sound sharp and flat at the same time and might have been composed by, and for, an elderly cat of the strangled variety. Unfortunately for the Midlanders, they have been forced to learn that song off by heart. Sarries have triumphed at Franklin's Gardens twice in less than a month, and if the first victory hurt their hosts, the second had them squealing with pain.
As in the penultimate round of Premiership matches, the Watford-based club outscored Northampton by the odd try in five, and there were other similarities as this semi-final unfolded. Once again, Saracens tackled like dervishes – none more so than Hugh Vyvyan, Mouritz Botha and Jacques Burger, all of whom kept their side's spirit level where it needed to be with ruthless hits behind the advantage line. Once again, they made silk purses from sows' ears in attack, taking maximum value from unpromising possession. And once again, their young full-back Alex Goode played a blinder.
It seems the only people on God's earth who consider the London Irish player Delon Armitage to be a better bet for England's forthcoming tour of Australia and New Zealand are the people who pick the England side. Maybe they are paid to see different things to the rest of us, to view things from a different perspective. But for all the rugby public knows, they have been struck blind. If Goode is not among the best two No 15s in the country right now, the Pope is a Presbyterian. He scored the first of his side's tries, jinking in off his left foot after some energetic approach work from Botha and a failed attempt at an interception by the wing Chris Ashton. Eight minutes into the second half, he turned creator by off-loading brilliantly to Kameli Ratuvou, thereby providing the crucial link in a chain that led to a clean-cut score for Chris Wyles. And all this with a busted thumb.
Indeed, Brendan Venter said so himself. "Alex showed such character," the Saracens director of rugby commented. "I said to him at half-time: 'Hang in there, you're brilliant.' For a young person to take on that challenge in the way he did was magnificent." Apparently, magnificent is not quite good enough as far as Martin Johnson and his colleagues are concerned.
Venter is in an interesting place, one way or another. Having landed himself in the disciplinary soup for an anti-referee soliloquy earlier in the season, he is due to appear at the Royal Courts of Justice tomorrow to answer Rugby Football Union charges arising from a frenzied league match at Leicester nine days ago, during which he is alleged to have fallen out with a group of home supporters. Yesterday, he watched the game from a seat at the very back of the grandstand, near one of the 22-metre lines. It was not ideal: he would have had a better view from the M1. But he saw enough to know that his feel-good combination of southern hemisphere imports and English up-and-comers were worthy of victory – Saracens' first in a semi-final in seven recent attempts.
Vulnerable to the power of Northampton's strong-armed driving game, the visitors lost Burger to the sin bin as early as the fifth minute – the Namibian flanker killed a ruck after a long run from No 8 Roger Wilson – and fell behind to Stephen Myler's ensuing penalty. But Goode's try allowed Saracens to make light of their numerical disadvantage, and they would have turned round ahead but for Soane Tonga'uiha's sucker-punch score down the left in stoppage time.
That try, entirely out of the blue, might have broken a team of weaker spirit, but Saracens stayed in the game. Botha, as South African as they come but now England-qualified after six years' of rugby-playing residency, neutralised Northampton at the line-out and even though the Midlanders responded to Wyles' strike with a second penalty from Myler and a try from Brian Mujati, the abnormally high wattage of the visitors' work in the loose kept them at the races.
Slowly, a horrible feeling of déjà vu crept up on Northampton. For all their control of the tight exchanges they could not shake the Bothas and Burgers loose, and as a consequence, their rugby became more frantic, their tempo increasingly fractured. As the clock ticked towards 80 minutes, Saracens worked their way upfield, won a penalty line-out five metres out, claimed the ball through Vyvyan and set in motion a surge that sent Schalk Brits over the line for a try converted with great assurance by Glen Jackson.
Brits, who will join Venter in the dock when the governing body convenes its disciplinary tribunal tomorrow, later described the match as the "hardest of his career" – quite a comment, coming as it did from a Springbok Test hooker. If anyone deserved the match-winning score, it was the man from the hills north of Durban. For one thing, it was his 29th birthday; for another, he has been one of Saracens' principal movers and shakers since arriving at the club last summer. His nuts-and-bolts work may not be of the highest calibre, but who needs mere tools when there is a wand available?
The South African was playing exciting, inventive rugby before Christmas, when the rest of the team were doing precisely the opposite. Now the rest have caught up with him, anything is possible, even a first Premiership title. Should they win the final on Saturday week, that damned song of theirs will stick in everyone's mind.
Scorers: Northampton: Tries Tonga'uiha, Mujati; Penalties Myler 3. Saracens: Tries Goode, Wyles, Brits; Conversions Jackson 3.
Northampton: B Foden; C Ashton, J Clarke, J Downey, B Reihana (J Ansbro 42); S Myler, L Dickson; S Tonga'uiha, D Hartley (capt, B Sharman 76), B Mujati (D Morris 74), I Fernandez Lobbe (C Lawes 55), J Kruger, P Dowson, N Best, R Wilson.
Saracens: A Goode (D Hougaard 74); M Tagicakibau, A Powell (K Ratuvou 46), B Barritt, C Wyles; G Jackson, N De Kock (J Marshall 74); M Aguero (R Gill 63), S Brits, P Du Plessis (R Skuse 76), H Vyvyan, M Botha (T Ryder 69), J Burger, A Saull (J Melck 69), E Joubert (capt).
Referee: W Barnes (London).Reuse content