Saracens have had the broadest backbone in domestic rugby for the best part of five years now, but there was only one team with a spine in the northern reaches of the capital yesterday. Northampton, so close so often to a showpiece appearance at Twickenham that the term “chronic under-achievers” had been superseded by the more hurtful one of “chokers”, finally showed the best of themselves when it really mattered and in so doing, they sent out the strongest signal that the English game’s pecking order might be about to change.
Even if they fail to beat Leicester, their nearest and not-so-dearest, in 12 days’ time – and judging by events when the two clubs met on derby business last month, it is a little difficult to envisage a Northampton victory – they can rest comfortably, if not entirely easily, in the knowledge that they have broken through on two fronts: by claiming a victory over one of the major contenders for the Premiership title after a long run of failures and, simultaneously, finding their way through the thicket of Premiership semi-final rugby at the fifth attempt.
What is more, they are about to flesh out their excellent squad with some very serious talent indeed.
The Welsh wing George North, the Samoan half-back Kahn Fotuali’i and the England prop Alex Corbisiero are among the most accomplished performers in the sport, and by adding an attack coach as clever as Alex King to their backroom staff, the Saints will be well equipped to maximise this vast potential. Happy days indeed.
Not that Jim Mallinder, their director of rugby, could have been mistaken for a bundle of joy at the halfway stage of yesterday’s contest on the artificial turf of Saracens’ splendid new arena – a pitch on which the home side had not so much as even looked like losing hitherto. “Yes, we were 17 points up at the break,” he said, “but I was thinking about the Heineken Cup final against Leinster in Cardiff in 2011, when we turned round with a similar advantage and ended up losing.
“I didn’t express those thoughts to the players, of course, but I couldn’t get them out of my head until around two minutes from time.”
He need not have worried. Northampton, driven by a cold-eyed fury that all but consumed Saracens in the opening 40 minutes, were in no danger of letting this chance slip away, thanks to that iron spine of theirs.
From full-back to No 8 via the half-back and hooker positions, they outplayed the opposition and, if the contest at No 15 between Ben Foden and Alex Goode was a scrap worthy of the name, the other personal battles were not remotely close.
Stephen Myler missed a couple of early shots at goal but quickly readjusted his radar to land three conversions and a couple of penalties, mostly from angles that might have baffled an Oxbridge geometrist.
By comparison, Owen Farrell was in a rotten place, his passing wayward and his temper fraying by the second. It was a similar story at scrum-half, where the supremely energetic Lee Dickson lorded it over Neil De Kock, and, at hooker, where Dylan Hartley reduced Schalk Brits to his component parts over the course of a performance worthy of Test Lionhood. And then there was Samu Manoa at No 8. His young opponent, Jackson Wray, is still learning his trade and has finished a distant second to the grown-ups on more than one occasion recently, most notably when the World Cup-winning Springbok forward Danie Rossouw set about him on behalf of Toulon earlier this month. But Manoa was no mere child-beater yesterday. The American made a mess of just about everyone who made the mistake of entering his orbit and as a consequence, he was Northampton’s centre of gravity.
“To me, it was his usual performance,” Mallinder said. “We chuckle amongst ourselves when we see awards lists and teams of the season that don’t feature his name.”
You could see his point. If there has been a more complete No 8’s display in European rugby this term, it was delivered behind closed doors.
Brian Mujati’s opening try from a driving maul; Jamie Elliott’s turnover strike following Manoa’s all-encompassing assault on the unfortunate Chris Ashton; and Myler’s precise penalty, awarded against Farrell for a late tackle – these scores were all registered in a flurry between the 20th and 27th minutes and just about put Northampton out of sight.
Even when Farrell reduced the deficit by six with a couple of penalties in the third quarter, there was no obvious sign that Saracens would find a way out of the forest.
Sure enough, Northampton responded with a short-side, sucker-punch try from the replacement back-rower Gerrit-Jan Van Velze, scored down a channel where Ashton would have been had the England wing not buried himself in a ruck and allowed Dickson to take full advantage of the error of judgement.
By the time Saracens, as frenzied as they were laborious, created a multi-phase try for Duncan Taylor on 64 minutes, the Saints were over the hills and far away.
They looked back only to claim one last three-pointer from Myler, the result of another transgression by the increasingly frazzled Farrell.
The England outside-half will have better days. If Northampton have a better day than this one on 25 May, not even Leicester will prevent them being crowned champions of England.
“It is a massive disappointment,” said Mark McCall, Saracens’ director of rugby. “We gave ourselves a mountain to climb at half-time. Northampton put us under a lot of pressure and we made a lot mistakes.”
Penalties Farrell 2.
Tries Mujati, Elliott, Van Velze
Conversions Myler 3
Penalties Myler 2.
Saracens: A Goode; C Ashton, J Tomkins (C Wyles, 59), O Farrell, D Strettle; C Hodgson (D Taylor, 24), N De Kock (R Wigglesworth 46); M Vunipola (R Gill, 65), S Brits (J Smit, 59), M Stevens (C Nieto, 65-78), S Borthwick (capt), A Hargreaves (M Botha, 69), K Brown, A Saull, J Wray.
Northampton: B Foden; K Pisi, J Wilson, L Burrell (T May, 69), J Elliott; S Myler, L Dickson (M Roberts, 69); S Tonga’uiha (A Waller, 69), D Hartley (capt), B Mujati (T Mercey 65), C Lawes (GJ Van Velze, 46), C Day, C Clark (P Dowson, 55), T Wood, S Manoa.
Referee: JP Doyle (London)