Nomadic existence is no barrier for Saracens home boys

Saracens 17 Northampton 16

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Despite a succession of dire decisions designed to engineer their own downfall, Saracens ended 2012 with a victory born of exceptional fortune. Stephen Myler lined up a penalty with time elapsed to secure a win that would have hauled Northampton back into the top four.

It was wide out on the left and close to halfway, but Myler's bold strike looked to be a winner – until it nicked the underside of the bar and bounced out for Saracens to belt the ball dead. If lessons really are learnt in sport, Saracens will benefit from this finale.

Their attempted self-destruct began by conceding a dumb penalty when driving for the enemy zone four minutes from time. This was followed by rushing upfield too soon after regaining possession, then kicking ball directly to the opposition and finally, despite an obvious blunder by the referee J P Doyle who missed that the ball was actually out of a ruck, kicking the ball away by way of dissent and giving up 10 metres to enable Myler's kick.

"A game we could have won, a game we should have won, but teams today are very close and very competitive," admitted Northampton's rugby director, Jim Mallinder. "There were times in the last 15 minutes when we could have cleared our lines better, but there were two or three key decisions by the referee also. I think some of them were wrong, but if I'm wrong on review, I'll say so. All we ask is consistency.

"You also have to credit Saracens who do not score many tries, but who are smart and know how to win games and we need to work on that."

The Saracens rugby director, Mark McCall, said: "We were pretty good for the first 25 minutes and built an 11-0 lead that could have been bigger. But then we got a bit excited and let things slip. I also believe we could have put away a couple of other chances, perhaps tried to play a bit too much rugby, but then you have to credit Northampton's defence. Games at this level are so often decided by small margins."

The fact that Saracens are contesting English and European rugby's premier prizes is astonishing, given that this was their sixth "home" venue of the season while awaiting residence in their new north London home at Copthall Stadium, Mill Hill.

The Saracens squad have made nonsense of the belief that playing at home somehow intensifies your chances of being victorious. This tends to be true when "home" guarantees a reasonable home support, something Saracens only ever achieve when away at the likes of Twickenham, Wembley, or as proved the case in October, Brussels.

Other homes from home were Bedford, Stadium MK and, of course, Vicarage Road, from where they've been aching to escape since 1997.

Yesterday's 20,000 sell-out in Milton Keynes means just two more trips to Vicarage Road before Saracens settle in at the newly titled Allianz Stadium (German insurance firm and sponsors), and it looks increasingly likely that the return to London roots will coincide with another title tilt as they now have six home games from 10.

On the field, these clubs have developed a fierce rivalry in contesting big games, and both boast of powerhouse packs. So it was very sobering for Saints to discover that their forwards were coming second in contact from the very beginning.

With seven minutes elapsed, Saracens won a line-out and converted it into a rampaging maul effortlessly. as the South Africa World Cup-winning captain John Smit was driven over for his first Premiership try. Hodgson missed the conversion, but made amends with two penalties in the following eight minutes, the first awarded after another line-out and another driving maul forced Northampton captain Hartley to bring it down.

The first quarter belonged to the "hosts", so it was crucial that Saints made some dents in the opposition half, and they ignited their large support with a fine score on 24 minutes.

When the ball emerged from the back of a Saints scrum, Dominic Waldouck targeted Hodgson's channel and barrelled through him before offloading to Ken Pisi. When Lee Dickson whipped the ball left from the resultant ruck, Phil Dowson beat off two unimpressive tackles to score. Myler added the conversion.

Hodgson's penalty attempts four and 10 minutes into the second half were both ambitious – wide right/left and close to halfway – but both were just beyond his impressive range and faded below the posts at the last few feet. Sandwiched in between, Myler completed a splendid Saints fightback later when arrowing home a penalty after Vunipola collapsed a scrum on 48 minutes.

You have to wonder about the modern obsession with replacements when you see Saracens remove Mako Vunipola and replace him with Rhys Gill, who promptly conceded two scrum penalties. The second, on 58 minutes, was fired home by Myler from just over halfway.

With Hodgson feeling a bit off kicking-colour, the duties switched to Owen Farrell, who delivered with a penalty in the 61st minute as the game see-sawed in gripping fashion.

Saints did well to survive a driving maul as Saracens coughed up possession while driving for the line. But their next decision was bonkers, trying to run ball up the middle in front of their posts and against a set Saracens defence. The inevitable penalty was hoofed home by Farrell, restoring the lead for Saracens and sealing victory.

Saracens: Try Smit; Penalties Hodgson (2), Farrell (2). Northampton: Try Dowson; Conversion Myler; Penalties Myler (3).

Saracens C Wyles; C Ashton, J Tomkins (O Farrell, 49), B Barritt, D Strettle; C Hodgson, N de Kock (R Wrigglesworth, 49); M Vunipola (R Gill, 52), J Smit (S Brits, 52), M Stevens (C Nieto 52), G Kruis, M Botha, K Brown, E Joubert (capt), W Fraser.

Northampton B Foden; K Pisi, G Pisi, D Waldouck, J Elliott; S Myler, L Dickson; A Waller (S Tonga'uiha, 52), D Hartley (capt), B Mujati (P Doran Jones, 35), S Manoa (M Sorenson, 69), C Lawes, T Wood, G J van Veltze, P Dowson (C Clark, 56).

Referee J P Doyle.