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By Innings
October 16 2017

Driving up to Northampton, in brilliant October sunshine, I pondered what we had seen so far this season, in Europe and at home.  It seemed to me that domestically the form is so variable that there is little to be gained from looking at any one side or any one result.  Everyone, except Worcester it seems, can win, and anyone can lose.

However, a few of the usual suspects are rising to the top of the table.  In Europe, the perennial cry is to win at home, especially to win your first home game.  Ulster did enough against Wasps, but Quins were out-thought and out-played by La Rochelle, who may be new to the top table but seem determined to get their share of the pie.  Leinster and Chiefs did what was needed, but will Chiefs come to rue the missing try bonus point come the final reckoning? Racing 92 did what they do, but Castres and Munster may find that the mutual frustration of a draw is a blow to their hopes.  Bath did entirely as expected against Benetton Treviso, but we watched the Toulon game against Scarlets whilst enjoying the late afternoon sun in the food village at Franklins Gardens and wondered which side felt more generous than the other.  Both had opportunities to win, but neither felt that keen to take them, and in the end a surprisingly drab game finished a point in favour of the home side. 

And so to the business at hand.  Would Saints have put Twickenham behind them and recreate recent form?  Sarries would perform for at least part of the game, but would we see 40, 60 or 80 minutes of their true potential?  What would the two match-ups, Jamie George against Dylan Hartley and Maro Itoje against Courtney Lawes deliver? 

I am a bad traveller, always fearing the worst, but within four minutes I was certain that Sarries had turned up, A-game at the ready and primed for the struggle.  Apart from a small early error by Calum Clark, perhaps too anxious to impress his former team mates, Sarries dominated from the off.  Nothing came of the penalty and Saints line-out, and Liam Williams made his first contribution with a clean catch and clearance.  Almost immediately, Courtney Lawes takes a ping for not rolling away, and Owen Farrell misses an easy three-pointer, to the crowd’s surprise.  Moments later, George Kruis is physically unable to bend low enough to make a clean tackle, and Stephen Myler gives an advantage 3-0 against the run of play thus far. 

After the restart, Saints fluff their lines, giving up possession all to easily, as they will do all afternoon.  Some smart play sees Sarries backs and forwards play as though this is a sevens game, with some smart offloads and inter-plays.  It ends with Liam Williams over, after some fast passing down the back line, ending with a superb line ending almost under the posts.  3 – 7. 

Richard Wiggy’s take and clearance from the Saints restart is simply breathtaking, catching Saints off balance and taking Sarries up to camp within the Saints 22.  No fewer than 19 phases now follow, side to side stuff, with Lawes almost single-handedly repelling boarders.  A penalty must come, and Farrell makes no mistake. 3 – 10. 

On 16 minutes, Sarries are on the attack again, and Lawes is already up to 11 completed tackles.  Inevitably the phase ends with a penalty, and a drive from the resulting line-out.  To a Sarries supporter the sight of a driven maul off a well-created platform is a thing of beauty, and this one is no exception, and as so often,  Marcello Bosch and Bradley Barritt join the fray, adding ballast and no little straightening of the movement.  In a moment of generosity, or wanting to please his captain, Jamie George smuggles the ball, quite unnecessarily, back to give Barritt the touchdown.  3 – 17 and already looking very ominous for Saints. 


On 26 minutes, we see the sight that must strike worry into any rugby supporter’s mind.  George North has broken through and looks dangerous.  However, Barritt tackles, help arrives and North is at the bottom of a small pile of bodies.  He is slow to get up, and hobbles back into the line, ready for the next play, a dangerous attack by Saints.  North sets off in support of his centres, but in Ugo Monye’s true words, goes down as he sets off, ‘like he’s been snipered.’  That is the end of his afternoon, and possibly the last we shall see of North for some time.  Saints can ill afford that loss. 


On the next play, Sarries are pressing again, and after some more of the inter-handling that is a big part of Sarries play today, Williams threads through a body or two to dot down in the corner.  Try awarded, and before the TMO can intervene Farrell has taken the smart option of a quick drop goal, miles off target, which protects the awarded try from the TMO’s possible interference


On 32 minutes, Ben Foden has broken through the first line of defence.  Farrell tackles fiercely, and at first sight is a certainty for the bin or worse.  However, a prolonged review shows that the legs were not lifted above the horizontal, that Foden’s body fell below the height of his legs, and that he landed safely.  Farrell and Teimana Harrison debate the issue, but the referee takes the pragmatic view that whilst both players have indeed wiped their sleeves across the other’s throat, the fair result is a penalty to Saints.  Myler’s three points are much needed.  6 – 22.  In the midst of this, Bosch goes off for an HIA, and is replaced, permanently as it happens, by Duncan Taylor.


On 34 minutes, I spot something a little new.  Alex Goode pops up at fly-half for a play, and Farrell takes the 12 slot.  For the next minute or so, Saints are perplexed by the two-play-maker ploy and Sarries take advantage.  It ends with another Sarries driven maul, pulled down on the line, with yellow for David Ribbans, another line-out, driven maul, and try for Clark, doubtless the sweeter for it being his first return to the Gardens since leaving there for Allianz Park.  Fourth try, bonus point wrapped up by half-time.  6 – 29. 


Half-time must bring words of wisdom for Saints, with Mallinder geeing-up the troops as he did at Twickenham.  However, it was not to be, and almost from the kick-off Farrell makes a break up the middle, which after some smart play between a couple of forwards, sees Vincent Koch drive under the posts, with Jackson Wray on hand to help him over if necessary.  It has to be said that Koch needed little help: Saints fly-half Piers Francis is a good player but he is not a tackler in the Farrell mould.  6 – 36. 


It seems unbelievable, but on 44 minutes, Saints actually have a play to make in Sarries 22, their first there so far.  Less unbelievably, Kruis steals the lineout, a scrum follows, a scrum penalty, and a clearance snuffs out that threat.   


With Ribbans’ yellow ten minutes over, Tom Wood comes on instead.  His athleticism is sorely needed right now.  Groom comes on for Rienach at the same time.  Almost at once, Saints see a chink, and a neat kick over the top sees Luther Burrell with the ball inside the Sarries in-goal area.  However, Goode is also there and Burrell can only knock-on in the act of touching down.  Sarries pinch a penalty form the 5 metre scrum, and another attack is cleared. 


At this stage, commentators note that Sarries have completed 41 phases in the Saints 22, whilst Saints have completed the lesser total of zero in Sarries 22.   


On 51 minutes, George and Koch go off, good work done by both.  Schala Brits and Juan Figallo come on, as if to prove that for Sarries this really is a game for 23 front-line players.  Brits is so close to an immediate pass to put Wiggy in the corner that one marvels at the improvement in his play since losing the weight of his appendix about 19 days ago.  His running will trouble Saints for the rest of this game. Wiggy will go off almost at once, giving Ben Spencer about 15 minutes to try his luck. 


Liam Williams was on hand to collect along-range penalty about now.  It was heading for the corner, giving Saints a 60 metre march up-field.  However, Williams, standing way outside the field of play, ran infield, leaped skyward, caught the ball and kicked a very sharp clearance back upfield.  It was clever thinking brilliantly executed. 


At 64 minutes, Mako is the beneficiary of more slick passing and running, and he goes over under the posts, escorted by Jackson Wray in case Piers Francis, 90 Kg, might impede his progress.  6 – 43. 


Spencer’s first serious move is a fizzed pass to Farrell from a scrum, moved on to Williams who delays perfectly to give Alex Lozowski, on for Barritt six minutes ago, a superbly worked try that simply looks easy6 – 50. 


Schalk Burger is also on, having given Clark a break ten minutes ago, just as Mike Heywood replaced Dylan Hartley.  Burger tackles just the smallest margin too high, Henry Mallinder, also recently on for Myler, sets up a Saints possibility with a neat kick towards the corner, and on 71 minutes Saints score their first try, taken by Haywood.  Mallinder takes the extras. 13 - 50 


So, as the game is winding down, Sarries are comfortable.  They have laid down their marker for the competition.  Saints are reeling.  A ruck on the Saints line, and the ball lies on that line.  Ben Spencer knows his laws, and a cheeky step forward, a downward touch on the ball, and Sarries’ eighth try, 13 – 57.  (There is no back-foot law if the ball is on or over the try line.)  And there it ends. 


So, Saints have been dismantled comprehensively.  As that well-known mathematician, Laurence Dallaglio, points out, Sarries have scored their try bonus point twice over, once in each half. 


I began by wondering about two match-ups.  In the end George comprehensively out-played Hartley in every statistic, and Itoje shaded Lawes.  Would it have been different if Hartley and Lawes had turned out for Sarries?  My own view is that Lawes would get into Sarries 23 but that Hartley would be a bit-part player at Sarries, behind George and Brits and hoping to get game time in the Anglo-Welsh games.   


Liam Williams was the eye-catching Man of the Match, and for me he was excellent but not as excellent as Alex Goode, discarded by Eddies Jones but probably the most important full-back in England in terms of his value to his club team.  Jackson Wray produced another of the performances that have me scratching my head in wonder that he has never got near an England run-out.  His trouble must be that he is utterly committed, utterly efficient and effective but an under-the-radar presence.   


An enduring thought, written down long after I wrote the rest of this piece, is that this game also showed up how true leadership works.  Sarries have a captain, and he is the glue that holds much together, but if you watch the game, any game, you will see four or five other leaders, and every player talking, listening and continuing an 80 minute debate about how to exploit every opportunity that might open up for them.  When the talking stops, everyone knows what the team mind-set has created, and they trust themselves and each other to play their parts in the developing phases.  Saints have a captain, but yesterday his leadership was absent.  His woes in a beaten scrum overwhelmed his leadership input and he was a negligible contributor to helping the team, especially the less experienced members of the team, to handle the situation.  The only Saints player who seemed to me to be trying to lead, to create a group-think about how the cope was Myler.  Compare that Saints individuality with the rapport between George Kruis and Nick IsiekweThey were as one mind, supporting each other, covering each other so well that it would be hard at times to say who was the British & Irish Lion and who the 19 year-old rookie. 


Eddie Jones attended, warm in his beany hat.  He has much to ponder. 


As always, I reserve the end for the referee and his team.  Pascal Gauzere and his assistants inevitably bring a different perspective to how they handle a game.  In the past, this has favoured Saints, who seem to have had a 5-0 winning record under his charge.  But this game was a different matter altogether.  Many Saints supporters are aggrieved that Farrell was not sent off, flogged at all four corners of the ground and then executed publicly, so it interested me that in the TV studio both BO’D and Nick Evans, who both know a bit about being targets, considered it to have been a fair tackle, and that the afters were 50-50 that should have been let go or with equal penalty given to both players.  Many supporters are certain that at least one try was created off a forward pass, implicating the TMO as complicit in the anti-Saints bias.  Many say that Sarries’ niggle off the ball should have been controlled by the referee.  A Sarries supporter would equally ask why Harrison and others were allowed a cheap late shot against Wiggy after every clearance.  That’s a difference between French and British referees, not a deep-seated plot to do down Saints. 


Northampton:Tuala, North, Burrell, Francis, Foden, Myler, Reinach, Waller, Hartley, Brookes, Paterson,


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16/10/2017 16:14
Thanks Philip, excellent report.
Totally agree with you about Goodey - thought he showed his class but I suspect EJ was looking the other way!

Edited 3 time(s). Last edit at 2017:10:26:15:50:41 by Darraghgirl.

tpr's headmistress (IP Logged)
16/10/2017 17:18
Thanks for that - wasn't that Nick Easter in the studio or did he leave before the end summation?

derbyshire fan (IP Logged)
16/10/2017 18:26
We were amused that the two Saints fans behind us in the first half (they didn’t return to their seats after half time) Wanstead Brad’s try disallowed and a penalty to Saints ‘because our backs joined the maul, and you are only allowed eight players’ - how can any fan not know at least the basics?

Innings (IP Logged)
16/10/2017 19:54
Sorry, Yes it was Nick Easter, a man who knows more about tackling than most. Perhaps DG might edit, please.

will do when Sportsnetwork stops throwing a wobbly!


Points win matches: tries win hearts and minds.

Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 2017:10:16:20:45:21 by Darraghgirl.

AlanE (IP Logged)
16/10/2017 23:34
derbyshire fan
We were amused that the two Saints fans behind us in the first half (they didn’t return to their seats after half time) Wanstead Brad’s try disallowed and a penalty to Saints ‘because our backs joined the maul, and you are only allowed eight players’ - how can any fan not know at least the basics?

It probably counts as 'ungentlemanly conduct' at a proper rugby club, DF. (Only joking if there are any saintly lurkers around from FG.)

Thanks for the report, Innings, - very good.

I was 17 miles from Graybridge before I was caught by the school leopard

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