It was a gesture to warm hearts on the coldest of December evenings. As the clock ticked beyond the ten-minute mark at Saracens’ StoneX Stadium, pockets of home supporters rose to their feet in a coordinated ovation, a show of support for their absent captain. The news of Owen Farrell’s decision to step away from international rugby had been the talk of the supporters traipsing across from the cobbled car park, the complex conversations of a difficult week for rugby, sport and, most importantly, Farrell itself brought to the fore.
Farrell’s absence from the Saracens side beaten here was not in relation to this week’s news, a knock to the knee last weekend ruling him out, with more than half-an-eye on next week’s Champions Cup opener against the Bulls in Pretoria, too.
Hidden beneath a baseball cap and sensibly wrapped up warm in a puffer jacket to protect himself from the cold front, the 32-year-old perched as a most interested observer alongside one of his young sons and Ben Earl, walking reasonably freely after recent knee surgery.
“It was nice to see him here,” Mark McCall, Saracens’ director of rugby, said of Farrell afterwards, confirming that the fly-half would be back in action on the Highveld in seven days.
While Maro Itoje led from the front in Farrell’s stead, the home side could have done with their fly-half’s fighting qualities in a second lacklustre performance in succession. Where they managed to escape a mixed showing against Bristol with five points last weekend, Northampton were more than worthy winners. “That’s two weeks in a row we’ve been flat at the start of the matches, not quite at it,” a disappointed McCall reflected. “We got away with it last week, and, deservedly, we didn’t today.”
These two clubs had contested a compelling semi-final on a rather warmer May day here earlier in the year, and the evening chill contributed to a hard-fought encounter as Saracens and Northampton reunited. High bombs swirled on a bitter breeze that nipped at reddening faces, with the game struggling to establish an early rhythm.
The first points arrived after nearly 20 minutes of nip-and-tuck action, Fin Smith – a strong contender to be Steve Borthwick’s third Six Nations fly-half alongside George Ford and Marcus Smith – kicking Northampton in front. The young playmaker, part of England’s selection last spring but still uncapped, added a second penalty ten minutes later.
Saracens’ great strength since the start of last season has been their ruthless efficiency in the 22, but the hosts were strangely profligate in the first 40 minutes here. Two mauls stalled within sight of the line with Northampton’s vastly improved tight defence to the fore, while a couple of inside passes from stand-in stand-off Manu Vunipola failed to find Saracens hands.
Those three-pointers were the only points before the interval, but Northampton found the game’s first try soon after the resumption. It should have been a walk-in under the posts after George Furbank fox-trotted into space up the left and support poured through, but Tom Pearson looked out rather than in, allowing Saracens to scramble. It mattered not – a couple of phases later, Fraser Dingwall’s precise lob wedge gave an onrushing Ollie Sleightholme a gimme of a score.
Saracens had not yet really turned up, but tried to lift the intensity. A brace of penalties on their own line piled the pressure on the Northampton defence, while a serious-looking injury to lock Alex Coles left them a man short. Manu Vunipola’s wide fling sent Tom Parton over.
But it was always Northampton providing more regular try-scoring threat. Another left-ward dance saw replacement forwards Curtis Langdon, Temo Mayanavanua and Angus Scott-Young combine dextrously, with Alex Mitchell the beneficiary.
13 points in arrears with time running short, Saracens had to find something quickly – and did. Alex Goode provided intelligence and a deft touch, allowing Alex Lewington to dot down neatly.
Vunipola’s conversion brought the home side to within a converted score of victory but it did not arrive. To keep a Saracens side whose attacking output has become a real strength to just 12 points is testament to the defensive development of this Northampton team under new defence coach Lee Radford, the latest convert from rugby league making his mark in union.
“He’s put his mark on it,” explained Phil Dowson, Northampton’s director of rugby. “The lads have bought into what he brings to the table, and how’s he brought his persona into it has been brilliant. Today would be good evidence of it.
“He came from rugby league and didn’t have tons of experience of union. He can ask questions, and stress test the whole of the system. Some of the individual tackle technique that he has taught the players has been strong. And so much about defence is emotional. How we defend reflects how he thinks about the game and coaches. There are three elements – the individual, the system and the emotional buy-in that he gets. They’ve probably been the key things.
Saracens’ losing bonus ensures they remain ahead of Northampton on points difference, but Sale’s thrashing by Harlequins on Friday means the top of the table is congested. As the Premiership clubs depart for their Champions Cup adventures, just two points separate first from fifth, with Exeter also within sniffing distance of the top; a fine domestic season may be brewing.
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