Planet Rugby

Extra time glory for Northampton

31st May 2014 17:30

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Unbelievable: Northampton

Alex Waller's try into overtime in extra time gave Northampton the most dramatic of Premiership title victories in a 24-20 win over Saracens.

It was the punishing, absorbing contest that all finals should attempt to be - far from perfect in terms of fluidity but truly glorious when it came to spirit and the will to put bodies on the line.

Fittingly, this Premiership Final was the first to go to extra-time. It turned into a penalty shootout between Stephen Myler and Charlie Hodgson, Owen Farrell's replacement, in a test of mental strength. Myler emerged victorious.

Northampton's recent history in finals has been filled with despair and regrets, but not today. This was a validation of their resurgence, dating back to their return to the Premiership in 2008. It was an astonishing way to do it.

Saracens seemed free of a European hangover, the frustration of last weekend's Heineken Cup defeat put momentarily on the back-burner. What a response this was to the heartache from seven days ago.

There was the important matter of giving Steve Borthwick and Matt Stevens the perfect send-off, along with putting the finishing touch on a season that has been one of their greatest ever. There was to be no perfect farewell for those two.

On the front foot they were effective, but they were well-matched. Northampton's defence appeared to have all the answers. Saracens were spitting after the TMO stepped in to disallow Farrell's try, but it was the right thing to do with the pass clearly forward. They would score eventually, taking the game beyond the 80 minutes after Hodgson's conversion was denied by the post.

How strange too, if not oddly refreshing, to be watching the biggest game of the season without the presence of Leicester Tigers. Saracens and Northampton were pinpointed as the likely sides to grace this stage towards the turn of the year and so it ultimately proved to be.

Northampton had underlined the depth of their resolve and spirit with that absurd comeback in the semi-final. They needed every last drop of it here, emerging from a scrappy opening to produce a brilliant team try to go into the break ahead.

Both were well aware of the prize at stake, the early jitters forcing handling errors and rash passes meaning that while it was a frenetic opening, there was little to please the eye.

Farrell knocked over the opening points with a penalty but Sam Dickinson made the bigger statement, his monster tackle on Billy Vunipola setting the tone.

Toulon flung their bodies mercilessly into Saracens a week before in Cardiff. Northampton had clearly taken note.

Saracens getting ahead early however had to be Northampton's greatest fear, because they are so difficult to reel in once the scoreboard ticks in their favour.

Great work from David Strettle in the air ended with another shot for Farrell, this time from the left, with the England fly-half delivering. No sign of the knock he picked up before the Heineken Cup Final here.

'9-0' was discussed as a previously magical scoreline for Saracens to accumulate early on and it nearly came about, Farrell just shifting his third penalty to the right of the uprights. Saints - dishevelled and playing all the rugby for no reward - had to tidy up quickly.

They needed a little bit of magic. Pinned back into their 22, Ken Pisi sprung free and countered superbly, his efforts rewarded with a penalty which Northampton chipped into the corner twice in succession.

It was a huge statement. An outstanding team try finished off by Ben Foden as the pack sucked in the forwards to make the space after some exquisite passes from Luther Burrell and Ken Pisi.

Saints led for the first time at 7-6 and after holding firm on their own line they went into the break on top. The graft and muscle of Courtney Lawes did not go unnoticed.

Farrell restored Saracens' advantage as Mike Haywood infringed at the ruck, drilling the ball low and true.

Then Neil de Kock's misread could have cost his team when his kick handed Saints a lineout in the 22, a trademark monster tackle from Jacques Burger on Alex Corbisiero cutting off the momentum before Myler's wide pass flew into touch. The margins were so fine that every sly kick or pass from both England fly-halves was scrutinised.

Northampton flung on Lee Dickson to up the tempo as he did so effectively in the semi-final. The intensity of the collisions though meant there was so little room to run. Ashton produced possibly his best tackle ever on Foden. When Farrell's body crumpled after smashing into North, England winced. Test-level physicality in the biggest of games, as Dylan Hartley came on.

His wayward first throw could have hindered Saints' fightback, but the breakdown defence from Northampton was strong when it needed to be near their own line.

North was their not-so-secret but brutally effective weapon. Yet again found in space on the outside of Ashton with a wide pass from Burrell, the star signing put Northampton behind the defence and from the ruck Myler's perfect grubber was grounded by George Pisi for a vital try. Myler's conversion was sweet.

Ask Northampton about last year's Premiership Final and their heads will sink remembering the drama of Hartley's red card. This time they fell on the right side of a controversial moment, TMO Graham Hughes doing the correct thing by stepping in to call a forward pass from Alex Goode after referee JP Doyle had already awarded a try to Farrell. It was the fly-half's last act, departing due to cramp with 20 minutes to go.

Saracens couldn't let it get the better of them - their composure when trailing by five points had to be spot on, inspired by the words of Borthwick and the actions of Vunipola and co.

Lawes welcomed Charlie Hodgson to the contest with a thundering crunch but it was his double tackle with Saints scrambling in front of their posts that ended with Hartley making yet another crucial turnover.

But Saracens couldn't be held out forever; they refused to be. Marcelo Bosch benefited from some dazzling skill from Brits to take the offload and score in the corner. Hodgson's conversion, the one to put Saracens back into the lead with time ticking away, agonisingly came back off the post.

The Brits-Bosch combo were at it again minutes later, forcing Sam Dickinson to hold on at the ruck with Hodgson kicking Saracens up to the 22.

Northampton had defended so heroically, but they were flailing now - desperate tackles just about connecting as Tom Wood of all people, bloodied and battered, kicked the ball to safety. Extra time suddenly felt inevitable. You'd have forgiven Hodgson for taking a moment to wonder what might have been.

Venturing into uncharted territory Saracens failed to release at the ruck within the second minute. Myler, feeling the pressure, showed nerves of steel. Hodgson likewise.

Saracens though needed tries, for if the scores stayed the same at the end of extra time then Northampton with their two scores would be champions. Jackson Wray was millimetres short of the line, but his efforts were in vain with Vunipola called up for an obstruction.

In the 91st minute the number eight's bulldozing carry however had Saints scrambling and they coughed up a penalty, Hodgson kicking Saracens into a 20-17 lead. Again the pendulum swung.

Northampton did have time though, six minutes to be exact at the time that Hodgson's kick flew out on the full. They couldn't win the crucial lineout. Perhaps it was not to be their time, again.

A drop goal was all Northampton needed, but they played for a try. Saracens defended for their lives, but it just couldn't last. To the TMO we inevitably went - Alex Waller, his left eye closed up, delivering the moment of jubilation.

The scorers:

For Saracens:
Try: Bosch
Pens: Farrell 3, Hodgson 2

For Northampton:
Tries: Foden, G Pisi, A Waller
Cons: Myler 3
Pen: Myler

Saracens: 15 Alex Goode, 14 Chris Ashton, 13 Marcelo Bosch, 12 Brad Barritt, 11 David Strettle, 10 Owen Farrell, 9 Neil de Kock, 8 Billy Vunipola, 7 Jacques Burger, 6 Kelly Brown, 5 Mouritz Botha, 4 Steve Borthwick (c), 3 Matt Stevens, 2 Schalk Brits, 1 Richard Barrington
Replacements: 16 Jamie George, 17 Rhys Gill, 18 James Johnston, 19 Alistair Hargreaves, 20 Jackson Wray, 21 Richard Wigglesworth, 22 Charlie Hodgson, 23 Chris Wyles

Northampton: 15 Ben Foden, 14 Ken Pisi, 13 George Pisi, 12 Luther Burrell, 11 George North, 10 Stephen Myler, 9 Kahn Fotuali'i, 8 Sam Dickinson, 7 Tom Wood (c), 6 Calum Clark, 5 Courtney Lawes, 4 Samu Manoa, 3 Salesi Ma'afu, 2 Mike Haywood, 1 Alex Corbisiero
Replacements: 16 Dylan Hartley, 17 Alex Waller, 18 Tom Mercey, 19 Christian Day, 20 Phil Dowson, 21 Lee Dickson, 22 James Wilson, 23 Tom Stephenson

Referee: JP Doyle
Assistant Referees: Wayne Barnes, Paul Dix
TMO: Graham Hughes

by Ben Coles

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