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By Behind the Bench
April 12 2017

Northampton Saints vs Saracens Aviva Premiership Rugby Easter Sunday 16 April stadium:mk   Saracens head north on Sunday with an eighth successive semi-final in the bag, but still needing work to push into the top two to claim a top two semi-final, whilst it's even more important for the Saints for whom this probably reflects the last chance to make the top four, or at the very least nail down a Champions Cup spot for next season in a relatively underwhelming campaign.

The conundrum for Saracens is the relative value of a home semi-final in the Premiership compared to having the best possible chance in a daunting, but winnable, semi-final, the kind of match Sarries have relished in recent years, although it's a bit of a stretch to class them as underdogs. The most obvious answer is that a modified side could still win in Buckinghamshire, and there is the chance of an "easy" five points at home to Bristol after the semi-final, and the chance to dislodge Wasps in what is effectively a Quarter Final on the last day of the regular season. However, just ask Exeter how easy their win was against Bristol, and, though they ground out the win, it was tough going, and proves that nothing can ever be taken for granted. The unchanged line ups from the Bath to the Glasgow game powerfully underlined the value of consistency of selection which delivered two dominant and coherent performances, trumping any concerns around fitness and the need to rotate. 
This game's relocation seems to have attracted particular vitriol amongst the Saints faithful. It's caused some confusion on one local website which proudly has Aviva Premiership side Northampton Town playing Saracens, perhaps explaining the Cobblers loss of form earlier this season. One for the quiz question enthusiasts. What was the first Rugby Union match to be played at the ground? Rather than a Saints match, it was Saracens against Bristol in Richard Hill's last game for the club back in 2008. For Northampton, this will be the seventh fixture played at Bletchley, going back to 2011 when Franklins Gardens was then too small for European knock-outs, and the ground hosted a Quarter Final against Ulster before they returned for a Semi-Final against USA Perpignan on their way to the Heineken Cup Final at Cardiff. 
Unlike their previous pool encounter with Munster, and in contrast to Saracens two seasons ago, Saints moved the clash with the Red Army in January 2012 to MK, the heavy defeat setting a new ground record which eclipsed that of the local football club, itself controversially relocated, At least the extension of the Saints' HQ seemingly ending the niggling feeling that Northampton could suffer a similar fate. In the run up to the Allianz Park move, Saracens played their home game with Northampton and won by a point as the Saints missed a chance to win at the death. Having attended all of the RWC2015 matches here, it seemed to go well, with Northampton playing Saracens again under the Best of English banner as a "test" event , and releasing a special shirt in a match just about two years ago, and edging the victory on this occasion. The special reusable cups for this match seemed to still be at the Gardens months later, and they returned to mk early last season for a comfortable win against Newcastle.
Back to Sunday's game, and the pendulum of results has swung in Saracens' favour in this fixture, although this campaign has seen a relative dearth of meetings with the Saints, just two so far, although there is an outside bet of a third in case of anyone suffering from withdrawal symptoms. There is the A League semi-final between the sides, though. Last season, Saracens won 12-6 at Northampton, but during the Six Nations, the Saints returned the favour by winning 20-15 in NW4, and, though they lost a European Quarter Final at Allianz Park, 29-20, they did at one stage threaten a stirring comeback. Sin-binnings proved crucial earlier this season as Saracens prevailed 27-12 at Copthall, and since then, Northampton have struggled for any real consistency, as their European campaign never really got going, and the Premiership season has seen them lose vital games.
In the aftermath of the loss at Saracens, they were beaten 20-15 at home by Wasps, who showed a defensive strength not always seen, but then staged a thrilling 21-20 home win over Exeter. October brought a 20-9 loss at Harlequins, where they struggled to make an attacking impression, but then started their Champions Cup campaign with a last-gasp 16-14 home win over Montpellier Herault only to crash 41-7 at Castres. Despite that loss, they bounced back well and forced four tight wins, as Gloucester were beaten 23-20 at the Gardens ahead of back to back Anglo Welsh wins at Newcastle and at home to Gloucester, the bright spell concluding with a single point success at Worcester. A truly bleak midwinter saw four straight losses as a rare Premiership home reverse to Newcastle was followed by a loss at Leicester and a pair of heavy defeats to Leinster in the European double header, before the spell was corrected by a much-needed home win over Sale two days before Christmas.
2017 started well as the Saints edged a 13-12 victory at Gloucester, backing it up with home wins against Bristol in the Premiership and Castres in Europe, but lost in the Champions Cup at Montpellier and in the Anglo Welsh at Leicester, which meant they didn't progress even after winning their last Anglo Welsh match 50-10 against Scarlets. February brought a damaging 32-30 loss at Bath and 46-31 humbling at Newcastle, but appeared to have rescued their play-off hopes by two straight success at home to Worcester and at Sale. That set up a crucial home match with Leicester, but the Tigers kept up their recent good record in this fixture by winning 36-31 to move into a challenging position for the top four. Last week saw Northampton give a fine attacking performance at Wasps, outscoring the home side five tries to four, but the normally reliable Stephen Myler left eleven points behind from the tee, and the Coventry side scrambled the win from the last play.
That last game highlighted the improvement in the Saints' attacking play, which at times in recent seasons had degenerated to an almost total reliance on the rolling maul at certain times. Saracens can vouch for the value of a varied attack which has them looking particularly potent at a vital time of the season, when despite Quins enjoying a majority of possession and territory, they were well beaten with slick attacking and a tackle success rate of over 90%; Michael Rhodes making 21 and not missing one. Saints, meanwhile, made nearly 500 metres in attack, but only just nudged over 81% in tackle success. 
Possible line ups would see Ahsee Tuala at full back, where he forms a significant running threat, with George North and Ben Foden on the wings, outside a centre partnership of Luther Burrell and Harry Mallinder, Myler continuing at fly half, and Nic Groom remaining at scrum half. Into the forwards, and the front row should consist of Alex Waller, Dylan Hartley and Kieran Brookes, with Courtney Lawes and David Ribbans in the second row and a back row composed of Jamie Gibson, Tom Wood and Louis Picamoles. Saracens should continue with Alex Goode at full back, with Chris Ashton and Chris Wyles on the wings, and a centre partnership of Nick Tompkins and Duncan Taylor, as Alex Lozowski and Ben Spencer team up in the half backs. Pack-wise, Titi Lamositele, Jamie George and Vincent Koch should form the front row, with George Kruis and Rhodes in the second row, and a back row trio of Kelly Brown, Schalk Burger and Samu Vunisa. 

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12/04/2017 21:35
Thanks Gerard
I heard Vunisa was out for the season

Edited 2 time(s). Last edit at 2017:04:23:11:25:36 by Darraghgirl.

derbyshire fan (IP Logged)
12/04/2017 22:39
Thanks for this

TonyTaff (IP Logged)
13/04/2017 14:42
Cheers Gerard.

Aren't they required to rest Lawes?

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Highbury Saracen (IP Logged)
13/04/2017 19:59
Prob Lawes & Hartley

European champions 2016 & 2017

TonyTaff (IP Logged)
14/04/2017 18:24
They have rested neither, while we have 'twisted' on 19!

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