Hodgson is on target for Saracens

Saracens 18 Northampton 12

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The Independent Online

The conditions were unsympathetically chilly and grim but some bright minds were at work in this jockeying for position by two of the Premiership's leading lights. Steve Borthwick's champions finished on top with their increasingly dominant pack laying the platform for a perfect kicking display by the returning England fly-half, Charlie Hodgson.

Pre-match rain and a little snow had left puddles on a pitch used by Watford in the Championship the day before at a godforsaken ground Saracens would dearly love to be gone from next season. The cemetery and boarded-up pub just outside might be emblems of how Saracens feel about their base of the last 15 years; they are awaiting the thumbs-up from Westminster – specifically Eric Pickles' Department of Communities and Local Government – to make a new home for themselves by redeveloping the Copthall athletics stadium a few miles south in north London.

These clubs have become the best of enemies in the past two seasons, in which both have reached the top-four play-offs. They are heading that way again, though this fixture had lost some star quality to the Six Nations.

Saracens were lacking the two Farrells – fly-half Owen and his dad Andy, the club's head coach who is on secondment to the national side for the Six Nations – plus Brad Barritt and Mouritz Botha; Dylan Hartley, Lee Dickson, Ben Foden and Chris Ashton were absent Saints.

Additionally, the Northampton forward Courtney Lawes is injured. But Phil Dowson, currently benching for England, was released to start here. And newly available too for a Saracens team who in their weakened state lost back-to-back to Leicester and Worcester in the past fortnight was Hodgson, fit again from the finger injury that let in Farrell junior to wear the No 10 jersey for England.

Northampton began with a shove that made Sarries stand up in the scrum, and a line-out drive trundling an impressive 20 metres to earn two penalties. The fly-half Steve Myler missed the first from 40 metres on the diagonal but potted the second from shorter range. Hodgson's two penalties then nudged Sarries ahead and Myler – though in theory the most capable kicker on view, with an 82 per cent success rate before yesterday – missed a tricky effort similar to his first. He was presented with two more from roughly the same spot near the left touchline.

He put the first to touch but Northampton were driven back in the maul and penalised. The second, in the 36th minute, squeezed in off a post for 6-6, before James Downey lost his footing attempting a steal on his 22 and Hodgson, from in front, had Sarries 9-6 up at the break.

In between, there had been some flying fur around the breakdown and with Alex Goode's cute dabs from the back for Saracens matched by Calum Clark marshalling Saints' line-out, it was claustrophobic stuff as Northampton chased a first league double over their hosts since 2003-04.

The resumption brought a penalty each way in the front rows, who were as concerned about their slithering feet as their binding, but the splat-splat sound of studs going forward was with Sarries as Northampton felt compelled to halt two mauls illegally, allowing Hodgson, making light of both the resuming rain and his own 64 per cent stats in the Premiership, to fairly whack over his fourth and fifth penalties in the third quarter.

Myler's penalty reduced Saracens' lead to 15-9 just before two substitutions of contrasting sentiment. Northampton sent on the England flanker Tom Wood for his first appearance in eight weeks, due to a foot injury, but Sarries lost their Wales prop, Rhys Gill, holding his arm in pain. A different kind of anguish soon afflicted the visitors; what looked like a forward nudge in the scrum went Saracens' way and the 45m distance was no worry to the in-the-groove Hodgson: 18-9.

Borthwick had missed four matches injured but he hardly missed a trick in the set piece on his return. A combination of ever-more insistent scrummaging and Andy Saull's snaffling on the deck snuffed out any possible Saints comeback.

They left six of their bench changes to the last 13 minutes; Ryan Lamb, given five minutes in place of Myler, had two shots from 45m to secure a losing bonus point and the second of them crept over.

Saracens: Penalties: Hodgson 6. Northampton: Penalties: Myler 3, Lamb.

Saracens A Goode; D Taylor, C Wyles, A Powell, J Short; C Hodgson, P Stringer(N de Kock, 50); R Gill (J Smit, 56), S Brits, C Nieto (M Stevens, 50), S Borthwick (capt), G Kruis (H Vyvyan, 50), J Melck, A Saull, E Joubert.

Northampton Saints: P Diggin; V Artemyev, G Pisi, J Downey (T May, 75), S Armstrong; S Myler (R Lamb, 75), M Roberts; S Tonga'uiha (A Waller, 67), A Long (R McMillan, 75), P Doran Jones (T Mercey, 67), S Manoa, C Day, P Dowson (T Wood, 56), C Clark (capt), R Wilson.

Referee D Rose (Devon).