Leeds on the brink as Saints scramble back
Northampton 31 Leeds 24: Northampton overturn 21-point deficit to set up semi-final with Leicester while Back's men must rely on Cornish Pirates to save them from the drop
After a crazy match in which Leeds scored three early tries to raise the dazzling hope of avoiding relegation by their own deeds, they finished bottom of the Premiership on points difference and their fate is now in others' hands. Only if Worc-ester fail to defeat Cornish Pirates in the two-legged final of the second-division Championship over the next two Wednesdays will Leeds survive, because the Pirates do not meet the Premiership entry criteria.
Otherwise Worcester will go up and the misery of relegation – the uncertainty over jobs and the sad but predictable exit of the best players – will be visited again on Leeds, who went down in 2006 and 2008 and have had three other narrow escapes. Neil Back, Leeds's head coach, said two weeks ago he "might have a decision to make" about staying on if the club's board fail to guarantee to spend up to the salary cap in the Championship or keep their squad intact. The indications on both counts are negative, and it would be a shock if Back was still at Headingleynext season.
Northampton, meanwhile, are busy at the happier end of the table. Their big-spending chairman, Keith Barwell, watched his last home match before retiring and handing over to his son Leon, and his side qualified for a Premiership semi-final away to Leicester next Saturday.
Saints had been the pacesetters last autumn but lost their top-two position with a run of six defeats in January and February. On the flipside they have fought through with home advantage to the Heineken Cup final against Leinster on Saturday week. The league-Europe double is still on.
Leeds's England hooker, Steve Thompson, has already agreed a move to Wasps and did not play yesterday. Kearnan Myall and Leroy Burrell are off to Sale. There are doubts over Thompson's fellow England international Hendre Fourie, who played magnificently here, and Marco Wentzel, the captain.
Leeds have been in the Premiership for eight of the past 10 seasons but the big crowds have yet to turn up regularly. If they go down, Leeds will have the parachute payment of one year's continued Premiership funding of £2.6 million, but debts of around £2m need to be addressed.
"I'm proud because Leeds didn't fail through a lack of effort," Back said after seeing Northampton fight back from a 21-point deficit. "Collectively we just weren't good enough."
Leeds had two converted tries in the opening seven minutes and, after a penalty apiece by Shane Geraghty and Adrian Jarvis, a third in the 18th minute. It added up to a barely believable 24-3 lead and a lot of nervous gulping among a capacity crowd fearing Northampton were about to cough up their play-off place.
Leeds have little pace but they began by going through multiple phases for Fourie to score their first try. Scrum-half Scott Mathie's half-break made the second for flanker Rhys Oakley and the third went to Pete Wackett out wide when Northampton's full-back Ben Foden lost the run of a kick- through. Jarvis converted three times.
Leeds' Alfie To'oala bristled and flexed his muscles; Northampton's line-out was abysmal, so unsurprisingly they turned to their scrum. After Phil Dowson ran in Northampton's first try at the left corner, a series of penalties conceded by Leeds at scrums in their 22 ended with a penalty try converted by Geraghty.
All this in a second quarter which also saw Paul Diggin sin-binned with Lee Blackett for a fight between the two wings, and Leeds briefly playing with 13 men when Juan Gomez saw yellow for scrum infringements in the 37th minute.
The turning tide became a flood as Northampton began to empty the bench where they had stashed some star names to preserve them for the bigger battles to come. Yet it was one of the irregular starters, Geraghty, who reined Leeds in. Foden was bottled up fielding a downfield hack but Geraghty, who has been second choice behind Steve Myler this season and is one of four Saints departing in the summer, spotted the right-wing short side was the place to go. He thrust past Michael Stephenson and had Chris Ashton on his inside shoulder for the wing to score his 10th Premiership try of the season.
It is Geraghty's flaky kicking that counts against him. A few seconds after he was replaced by Myler, up cropped one of those challenging 40-metre shots at the posts. Myler landedit and Northampton led 25-24. Still, Leeds knew if they could sneak back in front or even just score a fourth try for a bonus point it might keep them up. Their trouble was they spent practically all of the second half on the wrong side of halfway. And Myler kicked two more penalties after 69 and 74 minutes.
Belatedly, Leeds forced a couple of penalties and a line-out, moving into the Northampton 22. Fourie brought off a risky sidedoor pass that Scott Barrow did well to hold, but there was a fumble two tackles later and it was all over. Or at least, over now to Worcester to finish the job.
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, R Wilson, P Dowson (capt; C Clark, 40).
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), A To'oala (Denman, 36-46; D Paul, 50), H Fourie.
Referee Andrew Small (London).
Tries: Dowson, penalty, Ashton
Cons: Geraghty 2
Pens: Geraghty, Myler3
Tries: Fourie, Oakley, Wackett
Cons: Jarvis 3
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