Northampton Saints v Bath: Five takeaways as ‘King’ Courtney gets a fitting send-off as Obano’s red causes chaos

James While
Northampton Saints players celebrate on the pitch with the trophy after winning the Gallagher Premiership final at Twickenham Stadium, London.

Northampton Saints players celebrate on the pitch with the trophy after winning the Gallagher Premiership final at Twickenham Stadium, London.

Following Northampton Saints’ 25-21 victory over Bath Rugby in the Premiership final at Twickenham Stadium, here are our five takeaways.

The top line

The Premiership season went right down to the closeness of a single maul on the line until a spilt ball from Bath in the dying seconds gave Northampton Saints their first Premiership title in a decade to vindicate the brilliance of their season and to reward their dominance at the top of the table for most of the campaign.

With two sides so ambitious going head to head, this was always going to be a lot tighter than the fans believed with the set-piece, defence and gainline battle ruling proceedings, battles that went one way then the other, as a thrilling story reached its concluding chapter.

Saints were on the back foot for much of this match, and it was only the sheer firepower of Alex Mitchell and George Furbank that kept them on the right side of the scoreboard as Bath mounted a reply to Beno Obano’s 21st-minute sending-off that demonstrated the quality and commitment of the brilliant West Country side.

For Saints, semi-finalists for two years previously, this was the pot they deserved. They’ve lit Europe up with so many brilliant moments, some amazing scores and for their staff and coaches, some of the most accommodating and accomplished in the sport, this was just reward for a season where they’ve undoubtedly been the best side in England.

Alex Mitchell scores winning try as Northampton Saints deny 14-man Bath in epic Premiership final

Red card

Obano’s 21st-minute red card for a high shot on Juarno Augustus will always be remembered as the turning point in this game. To some it looked as if Obano had made chest contact before head, but the officials ruled there was no mitigation.

Up to that moment, Bath’s defence had dealt admirably with Saints attack, a system based upon fast rush into the Northampton midfield with the 13 coming around to cut off Furbank’s extra incursions into the line.

To compound matters, Obano and Thomas du Toit were clearly on top in the set-piece battle, winning two penalties before the loosehead’s transgression, but once Juan Schoeman replaced Obano, things changed decisively in Saints’ favour with the replacement struggling to handle the power of Trevor Davison.

However, his dismissal caused Bath no ends of problems; firstly, they lost their two most explosive and abrasive carriers, as Alfie Barbeary was removed to allow a prop to enter the pitch. The absence of two men of that calibre in carry is one thing, and Bath lost a degree of gain-line impetus, a place they were getting great reward for the first quarter. But crucially, it caused chaos in their midfield defence where both the loosehead and number eight formed a key part of the Bath defensive strategy, hammering the big carriers from the one-out positions.

To Saints great credit and intellect, they, through the minds and feet of Furbank and Fin Smith reacted brilliantly to the defensive reshuffle in front of them and targeted precisely the channel that Barbeary and Obano had vacated. The first try from Tommy Freeman was a direct result of Furbank cutting back in and looping into that hole, whilst a few moments later, a powerful run by Tom Pearson into that same hole took numbers out of the already stretched defensive line to allow Furbank again to create the mismatch and send Ollie Sleightholme thundering through for a well-deserved score.

Losing Obano was bad enough in itself, but the chaos it caused to the Bath structure was an absolutely pivotal take out of the day’s proceedings.

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But it’s how a side reacts to adversity that defines them and Bath’s reaction to the red card was something that underpins the philosophy and teamship of Johann van Graan’s team.

Led by the brilliant Du Toit, who not only scrummed on either side in a cup final but also played like a fourth back-rower and also nipped over for his 12th try of the season and with Sam Underhill and Charlie Ewels a brilliantly abrasive support act, the West Country side refused to give in and with Underhill clattering everything in green within a ten-metre radius and Ewels joining Du Toit as Bath’s key carrier, their sheer self-belief clawed back some unlikely moments. Ted Hill also rose to the occasion, giving Bath consistent lineout possession and adding his 17 stone to the list of eager carriers in blue, black and white.

Bath’s belief could not have been illustrated better than when Du Toit won a scrum free kick early in the second half, and from the ensuing move, Ben Spencer launched a magnificent cross-field kick for Will Muir to win the well-contested aerial battle and nip over for the try that brought the match to level pegging after 51 minutes and to ensure the match remained competitive despite the numerical mismatch. But it wasn’t enough, and as bodies tired, so eventually the numbers ran out, and it was tired Bath tacklers that failed to defend the George Hendy run in the chaos that led to the 71st minute winner for England scrum-half Mitchell.

So long, farewell

As Saints walked around the pitch as champions for the first time since 2014, so Twickenham bade well to some of the greatest players to represent Northampton Saints in their history. Alex Waller, the underrated and indefatigable loosehead, a Franklin’s Garden favourite, is retiring and off to carve timber with his best mate, Tom Wood. Alex Moon, a man who had a massive game at Twickenham today, is France-bound, as is Lewis Ludlam, who makes his way to join Toulon alongside David Ribbans, his former teammate.

But one man towers above them all. One player has been not only the greatest Saints player in their history, but one of England’s finest too, the immense, the irreplaceable Courtney Lawes.

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Even the most die-hard Bath fan has to admit it was somewhat fitting for Lawes in his last match to lift the cup he so wanted. His contribution to Saints and England is incalculable, and tonight, the massive flanker is King of English rugby and King of Twickenham once more as the entire stadium, Bath and Saints fans alike, chanted one word – ‘Courtney’ in a most fitting send-off to an all-time great of the game.

England watch

Other than the unfortunate Obano card, which will almost certainly result in him missing England’s summer tour to Japan and New Zealand, Steve Borthwick and England will be absolutely thrilled with the performances of the players they’re watching.

The Saints spine of 9, 10 and 15, Mitchell, Smith and Furbank simply bellowed ‘pick us’ as they delivered a performance reminiscent of the work the same positions do for Toulouse in France for the middle part of the match. Furbank, in particular, was quite mesmeric at times, his line breaks and intelligence in his incursions demonstrating massive situational awareness and rugby IQ. But Smith struggled as the game progressed to get away from the clutches of Underhill, who shone like a beacon and really dented Smith’s progress.

But for everything Mitchell did well, Spencer produced a display of rare quality, not least the pressure he placed on his opposite number at the base of the scrum. The Bath nine possesses a world-class kicking game, and he brought all of his cup final expertise with him in an assured display, but it was Mitchell who nailed the killer blow for Saints as he crossed after a brilliant run from Hendy.

In the second-row, both Ewels and Alex Coles reminded us that England are starting to get a bit of depth into their lock stocks and with Hill and Sleightholme both having their moments it was a day in the office that’ll see a lot of ticks in the Borthwick notebook.

READ MORE: Northampton Saints v Bath: Five takeaways as ‘King’ Courtney gets a fitting send-off as Obano’s red causes chaos