Northampton 58 Saracens 17: Spencer turns all his sorcery on Saracens

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The Independent Online

It is rugby's worst nightmare, the oval-ball equivalent of premature burial, drowning in a sea of farm waste or being eaten alive by rats the size of cats - a veritable Room 101 of an experience. Imagine the scene. You are dumped in front of a full house at Franklin's Gardens after another wounding upheaval in personnel and are promptly flayed by one of the Premiership's more rampant sides. And who is there on the other side of the halfway line, grinning from ear to ear like a sadist with a flamethrower? Why, none other than Carlos Spencer, the very last person on earth to give a team of suckers an even break.

The union game's answer to Diego Maradona made such an unholy mess of Saracens on Saturday that the visitors may not rediscover their faculties until the middle of next season, by which time they could be slumming it in National League One. Sarries held an emergency meeting at their training facility in Hatfield yesterday morning, not simply to seek an answer to their alarming collapse in confidence, but to establish whether the man in the Northampton No 10 shirt was indeed Spencer, or whether the almighty had descended from heaven for 80 minutes of gratuitous fun at their expense.

"I've tried some of the things Carlos pulled off out there," said Paul Grayson, the Northampton coach, who also played international rugby in the outside-half position, "but only in my back garden. The bloke does things I've never witnessed on a rugby field. He has a freedom and a genius about him, a sense of humour he applies to his work on the pitch. Every training session is an entertainment. I can't speak highly enough of the contribution he is making to this team."

Spencer, blessed with a repertoire of trickery that would have been the envy of Merlin himself, treated the 13,500 crowd to the full 10-course menu. He transfixed the Saracens midfield with his range of distribution - hard and soft, flat and floated, the cut-out pass, the reverse pass, the oblique pass, the pretend pass - and punished them with a right boot so educated that it made Simon Schama seem positively C-grade. One perfectly flighted diagonal punt gave the Scottish wing Sean Lamont one of his four tries; another, off the outside of the foot tight to the touchline, sent the hapless Saracens forwards 40 yards back down the field when the laws of geometry suggested their retreat would be no greater than 40 inches.

Then there was the bicycle kick. Forced to spin 180 degrees to collect a classic prop forward's pass from Chris Budgen, he popped the ball over his own head, turned like a ballroom dancer at the critical point of a pasa doble, collected the ball on the first bounce - well, it was on a piece of string - and freed his support runners for what threatened to be the try of the season, or any other season come to that. In the event, Ben Cohen knocked on at the left flag in Richard Haughton's tackle. It was just as well. Had the score been completed, we could all have taken up surfing. The union game would have had nothing left to show us.

There is more to Northampton than Spencer, of course; he is no better than any other stand-off if his scrum-half is off the pace and his pack non-existent. As it happens, Spencer is blessed with the best half-back in the Premiership in the shape of his fellow All Black, Mark Robinson, and a pack that is beginning to summon the furies. The spherical Budgen is more athletic than he looks; Matt Lord may be a straggly-haired, knock-kneed lock who is neither particularly big nor especially quick, but as an out-and-out workhorse, he is mightily effective. They have a nice pair of flankers too, in the contrasting shapes of Sam Harding and Paul Tupai.

Had Saracens been on top of their game, they would have lost by 20. As they are so far below their game as to be barely visible, they were beaten twice as badly. Mike Ford, the defence coach who stepped into the top job when Steve Diamond was sacked earlier this month, bluntly admitted: "We showed no character at all. We were 10 points up at the start of the game, yet crumbled the moment we found ourselves behind. In the last few minutes, we were in the situation where Steffon Armitage and Adam Powell, the youngest players on the field, were the ones trying to take us forward. It is now for the senior players to say why they didn't perform - in some cases, did not even attempt to perform. We're in trouble, and it's a deep-rooted problem. We do have leaders in our club, though, and we need six or seven of them to stand up and say: 'It's me. I'm the one willing to take some responsibility.'"

Saracens do not have the easiest of run-ins but should still be favourites to beat Bristol at Vicarage Road on Sunday. They will not come across anyone quite like Carlos Spencer again this term, but in their current state they would find Frank Spencer too hot to handle. Eddie Jones, the former Wallaby coach, is about to arrive in Watford in a consultancy role. If you listen carefully, you can already hear him shouting, "Taxi!"

Northampton: Tries Lamont 4, Tupai, Harding, Cohen, Rudd; Conversions Reihana 6; Penalties Reihana 2. Saracens: Tries Scarbrough, Armitage; Conversions Jackson 2; Penalty Jackson.

Northampton: B Reihana; S Lamont, J Clarke (R Kydd, 72), D Quinlan, B Cohen (J Rudd, 59); C Spencer, M Robinson (J Howard, 66); T Smith (Budgen, 79), S Thompson (capt, D Hartley, 59), C Budgen (S Emms, 55), Damien Browne (Daniel Browne, 72), M Lord, P Tupai (D Fox, 54), S Harding, Daniel Browne (D Gerard, 62).

Saracens: M Bartholomeusz (T Castaignède, 51); D Scarbrough, B Johnston, A Powell, R Haughton; G Jackson, K Bracken (M Rauluni, 46); K Yates (N Lloyd, 37, Yates 79), M Cairns (S Byrne, 51), C Visagie (B Broster, 46), S Raiwalui, K Chesney (capt, T Ryder, 55), B Russell, S Armitage, B Skirving (D Seymour, 65).

Referee: R Maybank (London).

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