Wembley way buoys Saracens

Saracens 19 Northampton 16
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The Independent Online

There are another three of these Wembley extravaganzas in the early stages of production, but the first was quite enough to be going on with. Saracens' ground-breaking visit to the place they are calling "home from home" attracted 45,000 spectators, at least five times the number who would have travelled to rickety old Vicarage Road and well in excess of the turnout for the All Blacks-Springboks game on the other side of the world. It also produced a deeply controversial denouement and, joy of joys, one of Brendan Venter's old-fashioned verbal spectaculars. Who could ask for more?

Venter talks the way he played – during his days as an international midfielder, the South African never beat about the bush if he could beat it up instead – and he coaches the way he talks: passionately and to the point. Telling it how it is has always been his preferred method of communication, and if his latest after-match address was any guide, the Premiership will be a more entertaining place with him back in it.

Lee Dickson was the Saracens director of rugby's specialist subject on Saturday evening, and he answered questions on the topic for more than the usual two minutes. Discussing an incident in which the Northampton scrum-half fired a pass at the retreating Schalk Brits, hit him amidships and then successfully appealed for a penalty that would have transformed the match had Shane Geraghty not fluffed the kick, Venter described it as a "con job" and accused the perpetrator of acting outside the spirit of the game, whatever that means these days. "It's not the way rugby is played," he said, adding that Dickson had pulled a similar stunt at an important moment during the Midlanders' narrow victory over Worcester six days previously.

The whiff of déjà vu was overpowering. In a previous life at London Irish, where he spent a productive spell as player-coach, Venter had his issues with another Northampton scrum-half by the name of Matthew Dawson. He appreciated Dawson's unusually vocal style of rugby in the way a vegan might appreciate a plate of beef carpaccio and occasionally felt driven to remark upon it in public. On one notable occasion, immediately after a fiery Northampton-London Irish match at Franklin's Gardens, he was asked why the referee hadn't marched Dawson back 10 metres every time he'd opened his mouth. "If he'd done that," Venter replied, "we'd have played the second half in Leicester."

In respect of this latest incident, Venter had a point: scrum-halves set out with increasing frequency to "create penalty possibilities" and then "get in the referee's ear", especially at the back end of matches when the scores are close, and there were times on Saturday when Andrew Small, a New Zealander highly rated by the Rugby Football Union's refereeing department, must have struggled to hear himself think.

There again, Saracens had their fair share of help from the officials. The failure of the massed ranks of the whistling fraternity to award Northampton an injury-time try, either to the prop Soane Tonga'uiha for his initial touchdown or to the substitute lock Courtney Lawes on the follow-up, will rankle with the visitors for the rest of the campaign. "If Soane didn't score, Courtney did," muttered one member of their back-room staff. "Quite how they came up with a knock-on against us, God alone knows."

Not that the controversy was entirely unwelcome in terms of the bigger picture. This was a high-profile fixture, both for Saracens and for the Premiership – new venue, new business venture, new everything – and it needed reasons to be remembered. By half-time, the absence of anything resembling razzle-dazzle was a worry, especially for those like Sarries' go-ahead chief executive Edward Griffiths, who staked at least part of his reputation on the Wembley initiative. Happily, the second 40 minutes were infinitely more compelling, for all sorts of reasons.

There was a flurry of try-scoring activity just after the interval, Noah Cato covering 85 metres after knocking the ball away from the eye-catching Dylan Hartley and Jon Clarke responding with a score down the left after two contrastingly beautiful passes from Geraghty, who looked a player and a half despite the occasional wobble on the marksmanship front.

There were also some startling flashes of imagination from one or two of the forwards, not least the unfortunate Brits. Much has been said and written about Saracens' enthusiasm for recruits of the South African variety, the majority of it far from positive, but on this evidence, even the most die-hard of Little Englanders would pay good money to watch the former Western Province hooker do his thing.

Brits was sent to the cooler as a consequence of the incident with Dickson, never to reappear, and if he felt hard done-by on Saturday night, it was entirely understandable. Both Venter and Griffiths were in sunnier mood, however. "Yes, I think we can do this again," the chief executive said when asked if the Wembley experiment might be repeated. "I can't tell you when – announcements will follow – but this was never meant to be a one-day wonder. Four times a season sounds about right to me.

"What we've given ourselves is a platform, a place from which the club can move forward. If we'd played this game back in Watford, we'd have had 8,500 through the doors and been stuck on a flat line. If we can take a couple of thousand, maybe 3,000, from here and add them to our Vicarage Road regulars for the game against Gloucester at the end of the month, it will be very encouraging."

Encouraging indeed. All Saracens need is for Gloucester to sign themselves a Northampton scrum-half in time for the match. That should pack 'em in.

Saracens: Try Cato; Conversion Jackson; Penalties Jackson 3; Drop goal Jackson. Northampton: Try Clarke; Conversion Geraghty; Penalties Geraghty 2; Drop goal Geraghty.

Saracens: A Goode; N Cato, K Ratuvou (R Haughton, 52-59), B Barritt, C Wyles (Haughton, 74); G Jackson (D Hougaard, 67), N De Kock (J Marshall, 78); R Gill (T Mercey, 52), S Brits, C Nieto (R Skuse, 65), S Borthwick (capt), H Vyvyan (M Botha, 52), W Van Heerden (M Owen, 58, F Ongaro, 76), A Saull, E Joubert.

Northampton: B Foden; P Diggin, J Clarke, J Downey, B Reihana; S Geraghty, L Dickson; S Tonga'uiha, D Hartley (capt), S Bonorino (B Mujati, 52), I Fernandez Lobbe (C Lawes, 52), J Kruger, P Dowson, S Gray (N Best, 62), R Wilson.

Referee: A Small (London).