Wood stakes his claim to be England's next captain
Northampton 30 Saracens 8
Saracens have a really bad day at the office about as often as England have a good one – the Premiership champions had won 19 of their last 20 league matches before coming unstuck here while most of the national team's days just recently have measured a hurricane-force 12 on the Ricky Gervais Scale of Cringing Embarrassment – so when Steve Borthwick, the former red-rose captain, headed towards the team bus after spending his evening on the wrong end of something painful, his dark expression was wholly understandable. Yet his immediate thoughts were focused on country rather than club. "This has been an awful week for English rugby," he said. "Anyone who has England at heart takes no pleasure in what is happening."
Borthwick did not linger: the engine was running and like the rest of his side, he wanted to get the hell out of town and back down the M1 as quickly as humanly possible. But his words spoke volumes. The 32-year-old Cumbrian was badly treated by England – indeed, his demotion from Martin Johnson's elite squad in the summer of 2010 was as craven a piece of selection as any in recent memory – and a lesser man would have allowed himself at least one "serves them bloody well right" smirk during the miserable World Cup campaign and several more during its bitter aftermath. But there is nothing "lesser" about Borthwick. The day he stops caring about red-rose affairs, he will be in a box.
How England could have used his professionalism – his reliability, his application, his serious-mindedness – in New Zealand, for there are precious few senior players capable of bringing those qualities to bear in quite the same way. Although come to think of it, the Northampton flanker Tom Wood is cut from similar cloth, and he was there in All Black country for the duration of the tournament. And would Johnson pick him in his starting line-up? Would he hell.
Unlike Borthwick, who was no different from the other Saracens players in finding this contest unfathomable, Wood played a blinder on Saturday night. He was not alone – there were big performances from his fellow loose forwards Phil Dowson and Roger Wilson, not to mention the energetic scrum-half Lee Dickson and George Pisi, the new back-line addition from Samoa – but given the gravity of England's current situation and the fact that he has been mentioned more than once as a possible successor to the much-maligned Lewis Moody as national captain, the super-fit Midlander was very much the talk of the town.
Wood confessed to his disappointment at spending much of the global tournament on the "surplus to requirements" list – his frustration has, he thinks, fed into his exceptional run of performances at club level – and while he was unwilling to discuss the toxic fall-out from the leaked reports into England's failed World Cup campaign, he made it clear that his ambition remains intact. "I try to set standards in terms of work-rate, in giving 100 per cent for Northampton every time I play," he said. "If things come my way with England, brilliant."
Jim Mallinder, the director of rugby at Franklin's Gardens who may also have a major role to play at Twickenham in the not-so-distant future, went further. "It's all about the rugby with Tom," he said, rather pointedly given some of the reports suggesting that other England players have nothing but pound signs in their eyes and on their minds.
"You only have to see him train during the week: he leads the fitness work, he drives the skill sessions, he's always the first to do contact. I don't want to criticise England selection – I don't know how the players performed or what kind of game plan was in operation. What I do know is that Tom is an outstanding player. I'd want him in my team any day."
Mallinder, linked almost hourly with the England vacancy, said the Rugby Football Union would have to make him an "unbelievable" offer to secure his services – not in terms of the financial package, he hastened to add, but in the way the job was set up. He would be advised not to hold his breath, for the governing body, currently in an advanced state of meltdown, is pretty much the polar opposite to the vibrant Northampton club, which is as expertly run as any in the country.
Certainly, he might wait a very long time at Test level for an evening as satisfying as this, for victory over a Saracens side who have given the Saints no end of grief over the last couple of seasons tasted like nectar. It was not any old victory, either: put bluntly, it was a thumping. The visitors threatened early when Alex Goode worked David Strettle away, but Dickson's try-saving tackle, followed by some heavy scrumming from Northampton, ensured no damage was done and from there on in, there was no doubting the outcome.
In the home side's first serious attack, Dowson twice did brilliantly – firstly in retaining possession after receiving an Emergency Ward 10 pass from Ryan Lamb, then by setting the crucial ruck close to the Saracens line – in creating a ninth-minute try for Dickson, while Pisi stepped Strettle all too easily to score a second before the end of the first quarter. When Dowson touched down from a driving maul shortly before the interval, it seemed that Northampton would score 50.
As it was, they did not even manage a bonus point – a mild disappointment surely, given that they had left themselves 48 minutes to score a fourth try. But Mallinder was not in the mood to allow anything to intrude on his serenity, and no wonder. A spanking victory over the reigning champions and not so much as a whiff of a call to duty from the Twickenham hell-hole? That's just about as perfect as it gets in the current climate.
Scorers: Northampton: Tries Dickson, Pisi, Dowson. Conversions Lamb 3. Penalties Lamb 2. Drop goal Lamb. Saracens: Try Joubert. Penalty Farrell.
Northampton:: B Foden; C Ashton, G Pisi (J Clarke 73), J Downey, J Elliott; R Lamb (S Myler 62), L Dickson (M Roberts 58); S Tonga'uiha (A Waller 58), D Hartley (capt, M Haywood 68), P Doran-Jones (B Mujati 51), C Lawes (S Manoa 62), M Sorenson, P Dowson, T Wood, R Wilson (B Nutley 68).
Saracens:: A Goode; D Strettle (A Powell 51), C Wyles, B Barritt, J Short (D Taylor 76); O Farrell, B Spencer (L Baldwin 64); R Gill (D Carstens 51), J Smit (J George 58), C Nieto (M Stevens h-t), S Borthwick (capt), M Botha (G Kruis 51), K Brown (J Wray 58), J Burger, E Joubert.
Referee: D Pearson (Northumberland).
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