The rugby politicians of the International Board may have spent the last dozen years legislating on a scale beyond the wildest imaginings of New Labour, but when the rain falls on a contest between two clubs with a relationship so dysfunctional that it makes the Blair-Brown version seem bathed in sweetness and light, the sport clings ever more tenaciously to its time-honoured values and ancient truths. This was an old-fashioned arm-wrestle in the wet and, perhaps significantly for the remainder of this season's Premiership, it was won by Steve Borthwick and his fellow workaholics.
England's deposed captain played an influential role in condemning Northampton to their first defeat of the campaign. The Midlanders travelled down the M1 with a pack of über-forwards who had already used their size, fitness and unusually aggressive brand of cold-eyed physicality to smash seven bells out of Leicester and Bath.
Here, they were all but emasculated by opponents who, in a decisive 40- minute spell either side of the interval, played with greater accuracy and discipline, generated a higher level of intensity and summoned considerably more energy than their opponents.
Borthwick had everything to do with this, as Brendan Venter, his director of rugby, noted afterwards. "He's exceptionally important to us," the South African said of the second-row forward the red-rose hierarchy no longer considers good enough to justify a place in the elite England squad. "Northampton cottoned on to what we were doing at the early lineouts, and he made small alterations that allowed us to improve in that area. It takes an old head to do that. His ability to change things during the course of a game is fantastic."
This was a painful afternoon for Northampton – one that may yet prove salutary if they learn their lessons, but unpleasant all the same. They dominated the early exchanges, outscrummaging their hosts and staging regular raids on the Saracens lineout, but ran out of answers unnervingly quickly when Borthwick, aided and abetted by his colleagues in the back five of the pack, started asking better, more awkward questions. Saracens recovered from a six-point deficit to lead 15-12 at the break and then pulled away as Derick Hougaard continued with his flawless place-kicking.
Now in his second season at Vicarage Road, the Springbok outside-half has a serious part to play in Saracens' fortunes, to the extent that he may prompt Venter to revisit the decision to run the gifted Alex Goode as his senior No 10. Goode's shoulder injury prevented him participating yesterday, but there are signs that he may revert to full-back, the position in which he shone so brilliantly last term. As the weather begins to turn, goal-kicking will be increasingly important – and whatever Hougaard isn't, no-one questions his ability on the marksmanship front.
He is also a tough little blighter. Back in 2003, when he was playing for South Africa at the World Cup, he was reduced to his component parts by the Samoan hit-man Brian Lima, whose ruthless tackling earned him the chilling nickname of "the chiropractor". Immediate retirement seemed the only sensible option, but Hougaard slowly pieced himself back together and continued with his career. There was something of that bloody-minded resilience about his performance yesterday.
By comparison, Shane Geraghty had one of his rough matches. His goal-kicking, never close to Hougaard's standard even on a good day, was less than dependable – the penalty he hooked from a handy position in centre-field did not endear him to the front-row forwards who had sweated blood to present him with the opportunity – and as Borthwick and company began to dominate at close quarters, his defensive game cracked and crumbled. He ended his afternoon in the sin bin after Dave Pearson, the referee, decided he had not rolled away from a tackle. When his spell of incarceration ended, the Northampton coaches sent on Stephen Myler in his place.
Those coaches were less than enthusiastic about Pearson's management of the game. "After watching it with the naked eye, we think he had a disappointing afternoon," said Jim Mallinder, the visitors' director of rugby. "There again, you always look more closely at a referee when you lose. We have to accept that... we made too many mistakes in the middle part of the match."
Some of the errors were extremely expensive. Bruce Reihana and Soane Tonga'uiha both fumbled try-scoring chances with the line at their mercy; indeed, Reihana might have changed the entire nature of the proceedings had he completed a straightforward touchdown in the left corner, for Saracens were rocking at that stage. But as the wise man said: "If the dog hadn't stopped, he'd have won the race. But he did, so he didn't."
In a game of few try-scoring opportunities – one David Strettle dart aside, Saracens barely threatened the Northampton whitewash – the spoils were always likely to go to the team doing the small things better. On that calculation, Northampton finished a distant second. If they salvaged a bonus point in the final seconds by working Paul Diggin over wide on the right, they lost the air of invincibility that had surrounded them since the start of the month. And that, in the long run, may hurt them badly.
Saracens: Penalties Hougaard 7; Drop goal Hougaard. Northampton: Try Diggin; Penalties Geraghty 4.
Saracens: N Mordt (M Tagicakibau h-t); D Strettle, K Ratuvou, B Barritt, C Wyles; D Hougaard, N De Kock (R Wigglesworth 51); D Carstens (M Parr 78), E Reynecke (S Brits h-t), C Nieto (P Du Plessis 51), S Borthwick (capt), M Botha (H Smith 66), K Brown, J Burger, E Joubert.
Northampton: B Foden; P Diggin, J Ansbro (J Clarke 76), J Downey, B Reihana; S Geraghty (S Myler 70), L Dickson; S Tonga'uiha, D Hartley (capt), B Mujati, M Sorenson (R Wilson 62), C Day, C Clark, T Wood (M Easter 75), P Dowson.
Referee: D Pearson (Northumberland).Reuse content