Saracens 28 Northampton 24 match report: Steve Borthwick’s big punt on Marcelo Bosch pays off for Saracens
Some of the things that happened in the northern reaches of the capital on Sunday took an awful lot of believing, not least the fact that a rapidly deteriorating Northampton contrived to finish within four points of their hosts, but there was one moment in particular when the crack of 10,000 jawbones hitting the floor bordered on the deafening.
While the misfiring Owen Farrell was performing the goal-kicking for Saracens, the visitors were happy to concede a penalty anywhere on the field. When Marcelo Bosch took over, they could not afford to give one away anywhere in Greater London.
The failure of England’s outside-half to hit a barn door – in this respect, Farrell was merely carrying on where he had left off in Belfast last time out – was the principal reason why his side had only a two-point advantage midway through what was fast becoming a one-sided contest. Enter Bosch, the Argentinian centre who joined Saracens from Biarritz six months ago. There was many a raised eyebrow when he talked Steve Borthwick, his captain, into sanctioning a shot at goal from 58 metres. Two short steps and a sweet connection later, the ball was seen sailing between the sticks before landing a good 15 metres beyond.
Witnesses were still questioning the evidence of their own eyes when, two minutes later, Bosch nailed another shot from 40 metres – the Puma midfielder’s idea of a six-inch putt, apparently. Suddenly, the table-topping title favourites were eight points to the good and awash with the feel-good factor. Even Farrell felt better about his marksmanship skills, knocking over a short-range penalty just shy of the interval after a long-range attack launched by Mako Vunipola and James Johnston, two of life’s piano shifters gloriously in tune with their piano-playing sides.
Not that Farrell’s spirits stayed high for long. He limped off at the end of the first 40 and did not reappear, having suffered suspected ankle ligament damage that left him hobbling around on a pair of crutches. He will have the injury scanned today and it may be that he will not play again during the regular season – more of a concern for club than country, perhaps, but not ideal for anyone.
Mark McCall was not remotely convinced that Borthwick had made the right call in unleashing Bosch from the kicking tee – “I can’t say I agreed with the decision initially,” admitted the Saracens rugby director – but he should probably have known better than to question the former England captain’s instincts. Borthwick broke the Premiership appearance record yesterday and it is fair to suggest that a man does not play 263 games at so high a level, most of them leading one team or another, without developing a half-decent understanding of what his charges can and cannot do. Not for the first time, nor the 1,001st, in a magnificent career did the most consistent second-row performer in the country get it absolutely right.
If Borthwick was merely the second-best lock on view here, it was because his boilerhouse buddy Mouritz Botha played such a blinder, energetic and aggressive in equal measure. Northampton, powerfully equipped up front with the likes of Courtney Lawes, Tom Wood and Samu Manoa at close quarters, thought they could strong-arm the Saracens pack into submission, just as they had in last season’s semi-final. They had some initial joy, cancelling out David Strettle’s opening touchdown with a penalty try from a driving maul, but soon found themselves thinking again.
For every heavy hit in open field delivered by Manoa, Lawes or Calum Clark, there was something just as forceful and significantly more creative from Johnston or Botha or Billy Vunipola. The second Saracens try, scored on 21 minutes by the flanker Kelly Brown, resulted from excellent handling by several tight forwards, while the same kind of all-purpose rugby gave Bosch the chance to stretch an arm over the line towards the end of the third quarter.
At which point McCall started unloading his bench – a policy all too familiar in today’s rugby and rarely less than hazardous. Off went Borthwick and Mako Vunipola; off went Bosch, of all people. The boss would no doubt argue that most of those he summoned from the field were in need of a short shift, having braved the fires of Ulster only eight days previously; no doubt he would have said that there is no point having replacements if they are not to be trusted.
But there can be no denying that Saracens lost control of a game they had dominated for 70 minutes, conceding late scores to Luther Burrell and George North and subjecting themselves to all manner of torment at the last knockings. Heaven knows, the visitors did not deserve to win… but they might have done. Should the two clubs meet in the last four – and, to judge by the slide in Northampton’s form, there is every prospect of them finishing third rather than second and returning to this self-same neck of the woods on semi-final day – it is a safe bet that McCall will rethink his approach to the 23-man game.
Saracens: Tries Strettle, Brown, Bosch; Conversions Farrell, Hodgson; Penalties Bosch 2, Farrell. Northampton: Tries Penalty try, Burrell, North; Conversions Myler 3. Penalty Myler.
Saracens C Wyles; C Ashton, M Bosch (T Streather, 70), B Barritt, D Strettle (Streather, 12-16); O Farrell (C Hodgson, h-t), N De Kock (R Wigglesworth, 50); M Vunipola (R Barrington, 56), S Brits (J George, 50), J Johnston (M Stevens, 50), S Borthwick (capt, E Sheriff, 56), M Botha, J Wray (J Burger, 70), K Brown (Johnston, 71), B Vunipola.
Northampton B Foden; J Elliott, G Pisi (J Wilson, 68), L Burrell, G North; S Myler, L Dickson (K Fotuali’i, 53); A Waller (E Waller, 56), R McMillan (M Haywood, 53), S Ma’afu (G Denman, 56), C Lawes, C Day (S Dickinson, 55), C Clark (P Dowson, 59), T Wood (capt), S Manoa.
Referee M Carley (Kent).
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