Leeds in limbo after defeat but Back may walk away anyway

Northampton 31 Leeds Carnegie 24
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Leeds rushed out a bullish statement of intent yesterday in response to finishing bottom of the Premiership but the devil was in the detail, or the lack of it. The club's head coach, Neil Back, who will discover at the conclusion of the second-division Championship final in an agonising 10 days' time whether his side will be relegated, has said that without full salary-cap funding and a squad kept fully intact, he may quit.

"I will be meeting with Neil Back on Wednesday," the chief executive, Gary Hetherington, said, " to review the campaign and the areas where we have fallen short. The board will then approve the budget for next season and we will be planning for life in the Championship regardless of the play-off final result." That two-legged final over the next two Wednesdays is between Worcester, who meet the Premiership's entry criteria, and Cornish Pirates, who do not. If the Pirates win, Leeds will stay up.

Even so, three prominent Leeds players, including the England hooker Steve Thompson, have announced moves already and none of the remaining main faces – Back, the captain Marco Wentzel and the England flanker Hendre Fourie – have given anything like a firm assurance they will stick around. And who can blame them? Rightly or wrongly, the Premiership is the place to be.

Leeds have spent eight of the past 10 seasons among this gilded elite but this would be their third relegation, to go with those of 2006 and 2008. They lost four key players this time last year, when they finished 10th of 12. In a catch-22, the club supposedly representing the whole of Yorkshire appear unable to build anything solid and permanent. "Compared with our previous two relegations," Hetherington said, "we are in a much stronger position with over 20 players contracted for next season, a dozen players out of contract and only three players who have release clauses in the event of relegation... [However] we have a debt of £2m that we need to begin repaying. We will go into the Championship aiming to bounce back at the first opportunity but realise the challenge."

The cruelty for Leeds in this last match of the regular season – Northampton have a Premiership semi-final to come at Leicester on Saturday followed by the Heineken Cup final against Leinster – was they came so close to an escape to mirror those they pulled off in 2002, 2004 and 2010. Leeds had three tries in the opening 18 minutes by Fourie, Rhys Oakley and Pete Wackett. They needed just one more in the remaining hour-and-a-bit to overhaul Newcastle.

Instead, Northampton steadily introduced their star acts from the bench, where Dylan Hartley, the captain, and a handful of others were resting for the more important tasks to come. Chris Ashton's 10th Premiership try of the season was added to a Phil Dowson score and a penalty try forced by Northampton's powerful scrum, and the first-choice fly-half Steve Myler trotted on to swipe three penalty goals. Leeds's astonishing 24-3 lead was inexorably overturned.

Still, Leeds had a last-minute attack: a run up the right by Lee Blackett, a penalty in midfield, a line-out caught by Kearnan Myall and a thrust by Fourie and Scott Barrow. But the ball was lost in a tackle and, with it, Leeds's Premiership status.

"We had a pretty serious bench and we always knew that if we had any problems we could do a bit of damage," the Northampton lock, Courtney Lawes, said.

Scorers: Northampton Saints: Tries Dowson, penalty try, Ashton Conversions Geraghty 2 Penalties Geraghty, Myler 3.

Leeds Carnegie: Tries Fourie, Oakley, Wackett Conversions Jarvis 3 Penalty Jarvis.

Northampton Saints B Foden; C Ashton, J Ansbro, J Downey, P Diggin (B Reihana, 56); S Geraghty (S Myler, 50), S Commins (L Dickson, 40); A Waller (S Tonga'uiha, 60), B Sharman (D Hartley, 44), B Mujati (T Mercey, 65), M Sorenson (C Lawes, 58), C Day, M Easter, P Dowson (capt; C Clark, 40), R Wilson.

Leeds Carnegie M Stephenson; L Blackett, H Fa'afili, S Barrow, P Wackett (U Oduoza, 57); A Jarvis (C Lewis-Pratt, 70), S Mathie (D White, 77); M MacDonald (G Hardy, 57), P Nilsen (H Hannon, 71), J Gomez (G Denman, 76), D Browne, K Myall (capt), R Oakley (T Denton, 66), H Fourie, A To'oala (Denman, 36-46; D Paul, 50).

Referee A Small (London).