The Heineken Cup is the only place to be these days, which explains why two of the Premiership’s lower-to-middling clubs poured so much of themselves into last night’s European Challenge Cup semi-final at Franklin’s Gardens.
It was pulsating contest from the outset, wholly passionate and studded with outbreaks of fighting, and it was not until Stephen Myler dropped a goal from the best part of 40 metres with three minutes left on the clock that the home side prevailed. If they beat either Bourgoin or Worcester later this month, they will qualify for next season’s main event.
Three times during the first half, the French referee looked on in faint amusement as the two sides squared up to each other in considerable numbers, and when he finally had enough, he sent the rival hookers to the cooler. As they left the field, Dylan Hartley and Fabio Ongaro continued their disagreement verbally, and there seemed every prospect of more fun and games when they returned. Happily for all concerned, the 10-minute break served its purpose.
Not that Northampton were unduly affected by the departure of their England front-rower. Already ahead through the accuracy of Myler's marksmanship – his second penalty from the back end of beyond was magnificent – the Midlanders stretched their advantage to 13-3 when, building on Soane Tonga’uiha’s rampage upfield, they spun the ball left to Bruce Reihana, who topped off a fine 40 minutes with a try in the left corner.
It was no more than their due, for their free-running backs - the wing Paul Diggin and the full-back Ben Foden, as well as Reihana - had Saracens on toast for much of the opening period. Yet the visitors would not go away. Glen Jackson kicked a second penalty from comfortable range 11 minutes into the second half and thus encouraged, they sent their heavyweight pack clunking up through the gears to considerable effect. They were rewarded six minutes from the end of normal time with a try by Rodd Penney after an incisive appearance in the line from Chris Wyles. Jackson converted to square it, but Myler’s immediate riposte proved decisive.
Northampton: B Foden; P Diggin, J Clarke, J Downey (J Ansbro 75), B Reihana (capt); S Myler, L Dickson (A Dickens 68); S Tonga'uhia (T Smith 71), D Hartley, E Murray, I Fernandez Lobbe (C Lawes 56), J Kruger, N Best, S Gray (B Sharman 24-36), M Easter.
Saracens: C Wyles; N Cato, F Leonelli (A Powell 70), B Barritt (A Farrell 55), R Penney; G Jackson, N De Kock; M Aguero (T Mercey H-T), F Ongaro (M Cairns 70), C Johnston, S Borthwick (capt), T Ryder (Cairns 24-36, H Vyvyan 56), C Jack, A Saull, B Skirving (D Barrell 40).
Referee: R Poite (France).