March 22 2016
Northampton Saints travelled to Devon last weekend to take on Aviva Premiership high-flyers Exeter Chiefs. Regular COYSDC contributor, fair_weather_fan (Robin to his mates), looks back on an frustrating trip down to Sandy Park...
EXETER CHIEFS 20 vs 12 NORTHAMPTON SAINTS
Sunday, 20th March 2016
SANDY PARK, EXETER
Saints fall short on Little Big Horn
A game of two halves is a sporting cliché so timeworn that I can’t possibly use it to describe Sunday’s events at Sandy Park, so I won’t. Mrs FWF and I had travelled down on Friday with modest expectations as the Chiefs are as good as any in the league this season, but fortified by a variety of epicurean delights including some Mean Dhu at a quayside hostelry in Exeter, an excellent repast in a noted French Brasserie near the cathedral, some bracing walking on the cliffs over Exmouth followed by a rather Blumenthal like cream tea, optimistically we made our way up to the slip road off the bypass as the Park should really be known.
Actually I don’t know why they don’t just call it the Reservation and erect a few totem poles and some Wigwams, so thoroughly has the native Indian metaphor been absorbed. Problematically the Indians lost most of their battles except for Little Big Horn, and if there is a General Custer-like figure within the premiership, it surely isn’t Jim Mallinder.
But I digress. The day dawned dry but chilly, with a cold breeze that turned out to be blowing gently and diagonally across the ground, a mere gentle zephyr compared to the typhoon blowing this time last year. Saints got the first use of the wind, but after ten minutes of sparring, Saints over threw a defensive lineout on their own 22 that Chiefs collected and a try seemed inevitable but in the act of what seemed an un-necessary pass contrived to lose the ball forward with the tryline at their mercy. Losing the ball forwards in contact was a mistake that the Chiefs repeated several times and the resulting loss of possession and field position gave Saints opportunities.
The early exchanges saw some neat short kicks over the fast rushing Chiefs defensive line by JJ, a tactic that I really approved of, as well as one or two well placed higher ones that were collected by Saints players with Ken Pisi to the fore. The pack did good work in getting through mauls to turn possession over and employing the choke tackle successfully several times in midfield with the same effect. The scores however were slow coming but after the Chiefs opened up with a penalty, Saints made yards down their left and eventually a very alert Lee Dickson touched down in the corner. JJ missed the tricky conversion but with quality ball from the pack and Lee, JJ led the line well, keeping the defence honest with sniping runs as well as some nice loop moves.
At this stage Saints were good value for 5-3 and after making good ground through the forwards patiently moved the ball back and forth across the field until an overlap appeared and Jamie Gibson slipped a neat pass inside for Ken Pisi to trot over unopposed. JJ got the tricky conversion this time across the wind, the crowd were silent and the Saints in complete control at this point, with hardly a mistake to mention of any kind.
Towards half time Chiefs spilled the ball again and Harry returned a long grubber all the way to the 5M line; Saints competed for the ball at the lineout and from the resulting mess secured scrum ball. The advantage was turned into a penalty, but then as half time beckoned the game reached a turning point. With the option to kick to touch and drive a lineout, Saints took instead a scrum, and promptly lost the ball. To cheers all round the ground the Chiefs headed off to the inevitable half time flying teacups but with the game alive.
Now hindsight is a horrible thing but I was astonished that we took a scrum. We won the previous one but over the half scrums had been even and except for the early overthrown effort, lineouts had been perfect. Saints had dominated maul play to that point. I can’t help but think a chance to go in at 17-3 or 19-3 had been squandered, but surely someone has to be looking at this – we lost an identical position last week as well.
So inevitably a fired up Chiefs side came out for the second half and took it to the Saints. While the pack defended stoutly, in the wider channels we were struggling to contain the Chiefs and after a half break into the 22 Mikey H got into Mr Garner’s bad books at the tackle and was despatched for 10 minutes to the naughty step. To be honest without the benefit of a replay even with the incident right in front of me I did not see what the offence was that warranted more than a penalty against a team that had registered no open field penalties in the first half. But the ten minutes lost were lethal for the Saints as they were penned back in their own 22 and while the pack resisted eventually the ball got into the undermanned wide channel and Olly Woodburn got over in the corner. The conversion was missed, but Gareth Steenson put over a long range penalty before Mikey returned, as the introduction of Salvi for an anonymous Waldrom changed the picture at the breakdown, where Saints began to concede penalties.
The game was still in the balance at this point, but much as Chiefs had lost field position through handling errors in the first half (and they butchered a try through another one in the second), Saints gave it all back. Several kicks went out on the full and Ken Pisi shipped a difficult catch under no pressure at all into touch. This way Saints completely lost momentum in the second period and as the pack started to concede penalties the boot of Steenson made them pay and the game was put progressively out of reach without the line ever being breached again.
A notable thorn in the Saints side in the second period was young replacement prop Alec Hepburn whose destructive carrying put the Saints on the back foot in the second half, and this together with the sin-binning of Mikey H were the crucial factors in the second half revival. Steenson took the media plaudits but apart from self inflicted wounds the real damage was done elsewhere. It’s hard to use hindsight but just as the binning of Dan Cole nearly cost England the Wales Match, the concession of points and loss or organisation during the bin period were fatal to the Saints cause. The wind played no part, being constant during the game.
There was a curious footnote to the match and with the Saints 8 adrift, not a game swinging moment, although bonus points may decide playoff places at the end of the season. Saints started using short restarts at the end, and at the last, a Chief knocked on under pressure, and the Saints scooped up the loose ball and propelled it rapidly up the field for a bonus point saving try. The officials called it back and after review chalked it off for playing the man in the air. I’m really glad Saints were 8 down and not 4 or 6 as this looked a dim decision and one not supported by anyone in the ground Chiefs fans included. I couldn’t see a screen clearly enough to know for sure but I advise anyone posting to use their eyes and knowledge of the laws and not any commentary to guide you on that one.
So a fair result in the end as the second half performance did not deserve any reward. It seems easier to come from behind than hold a lead for the Saints and when they play a full strength Sarries in the ECC come April some of them will have to play at a much higher level than today. A Playoff place is still possible but with five to play I believe we need to win all of them, or garner a shed load of bonus points while losing one game.
By the way, lovely people in Exeter and a pleasure to spend time with their fans.