What a difference six months makes. The stakes, and temperature, were significantly lower but if Northampton Saints travelled to the StoneX Stadium on Saturday hoping for a measure of revenge from their semi-final defeat there in May, then an outstanding defensive performance and an 18-12 win ensured that a few Saracens ghosts were appropriately exorcised.
“It’s a tough place to come,” centre Tommy Freeman beamed afterwards. “They’ve been at the top for a long time, reigning champions for the last decade. We knew we had to throw the first punch.
“It was all about coming out here and showing that energy, firing first, and I think we did that well. And then to hold on at the end there like we did shows our character and hopefully that’s a massive step moving forward.”
The away win is a significant boost as Northampton seek a third successive Premiership play-off appearance – very few sides will come to Saracens this season and win. While the hosts’ losing bonus point keeps them just ahead of their opponents in fourth, Northampton are only two points off top spot as the league pauses for the start of the Investec Champions Cup.
Northampton’s continuing success has been built around a domestic core. Of the starting XV in Saturday’s game, only hooker Sam Matavesi is ineligible for England selection. Among that contingent are plenty of individuals on Steve Borthwick’s radar, with Fin Smith set to be the third Six Nations fly half and incumbent scrum half Alex Mitchell underlining his quality with a scorching finish off the bench.
While the club’s academy canonization process is working smoothly, they have also recruited cannily in the last 12 months, with Smith an influential pick-up after the demise of Worcester and promising forwards Chunya Munga and Tom Pearson settling in well after a similarly sad situation at London Irish.
But it is the versatile Tommy Freeman that might be the likeliest lad of Northampton’s group of young England contenders. The tall and muscular back was a standout on the tour of Australia last year, but endured a difficult autumn in the last days of the Eddie Jones era, and has thus far has been unable to force his way into Steve Borthwick’s plans. The 21-year-old was part of England’s initial pre-World Cup gatherings but missed the cut as preparations intensified in July.
Phil Dowson, Northampton’s director of rugby, confirmed on Saturday night that Freeman remains very much on the radar of the England head coach, with a summer switch of position only aiding his international chances. Freeman had come through as a free-scoring back three man, but has featured five times at outside centre this season, impressing on each occasion.
“Tommy is a very, very good athlete and a very good footballer,” Dowson explained of the switch. “If you put him at 13, he gets more of the ball. He’s a big man and he’s not afraid to throw his weight around.
“He was very disappointed not to go to the World Cup. He was pretty close, I think. It’ll be interesting to see how Steve views his performances so far, particularly at centre, depending on what he wants to do with that situation. He’s definitely put his hand up, and Steve is definitely talking about him.”
While was his attacking gifts that caught the early in his career, Freeman’s showing against Saracens was a performance of real defensive maturity. Having shipped a combined 83 points on two visits to north London last season, Saints have tightened up significantly under new defence coach Lee Radford, with Freeman playing a crucial role in the 13 channel.
A player with his size and speed blend appears well suited to a more central role, and there are also signs that Freeman is becoming more and more attuned to the finer details required of a demanding position.
“It’s still new,” Freeman admitted after the Saracens win. “I’m enjoying it a lot though, getting my hands on the ball a bit more with a bit less time. I’m loving it, and hopefully I’ll keep growing going forward.
“When I was growing up, I started at ten and went out into the centres, and then out to the wing and full-back, so it feels like I am coming back in. It’s nice to have that versatility to my game – I pick up different cues here and there from playing there. It’s exciting.”
Borthwick has something of a selection quandary at 13 for the Six Nations, with Joe Marchant – one of England’s most consistent World Cup performers – now unavailable after joining Stade Francais. Ollie Lawrence continues to impress for Bath, but has thus far been used primarily at inside centre by England; Owen Farrell’s absence may well bring Henry Slade back into the mix as an experienced playmaking option.
But Freeman, and a host of other Saints, are likely to be there or thereabouts when Borthwick makes his selection in mid-January.
“There were a lot of us on the pitch [against Saracens] that came through the academy, so it is credit to them for developing us from a young age and giving us a shot on the big stage when the time comes,” said Freeman.
“We’ve just got to keep playing well here, keep doing the things that [England] want us to do with a few bits of our game. That’s all we can do really, and hopefully the rest of it takes care of itself. If we are always performing well for Saints, England will, hopefully, come calling.”
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies