Northampton v Bulls: Five takeaways as ‘absolutely immense’ Saints send ‘depleted’ visitors packing

James While
Northampton Saints' Courtney Lawes on his way over to score

Northampton Saints' Courtney Lawes on his way over to score.

Following Northampton Saints’ 59-22 victory over the Bulls in the Investec Champions Cup quarter-finals, here’s our takeaways from Franklin’s Gardens.

The top line

Northampton Saints powered their way to a tough semi-final clash at Croke Park in Dublin against Leinster as they disposed of the Bulls in a sumptuous display of handling and ambition, scoring nine tries in the process.

It will be the running of James Ramm and Player of the Match Ollie Sleightholme (on his birthday) together with the control of Alex Mitchell and Fin Smith at half-back that will make all the headlines, but at the heart of the Northampton performance was an absolutely immense display by their starting back-row and the two men who replaced them, as the breakdown battle was fiercely contested all evening with the South African side going toe to toe on the gainline against one of the best loose forwards in the Premiership.

Nevertheless, it’s Northampton who go through, led brilliantly by the iconic Courtney Lawes, marshalled magnificently by Mitchell and Smith. One thing is for sure though – they’ll need to be at their very best if they’re to upset the odds in Dublin in a few weeks time, but provided they cut out the errors we saw in this match, there’s no doubting they have the firepower to trouble any side in the world.

Nine-try Northampton Saints hammer depleted Bulls to set up Champions Cup semi-final with Leinster

Back-row shines

There’s no love lost between the Bulls and the Stormers and Saints number eight and former Cape Town man Juarno Augustus was at great pains to stoke the fire between the two rival franchises, telling all before the game that this was personal for him.

The big back-row put in a powerful performance against an equally impressive and suitably fired up Cameron Hanekom, whose pace, mobility and appetite for opportunism was clear for all to see, despite a moment of madness that saw him sent to the sin bin for a reckless tackle on Fraser Dingwall. With Sam Graham, selected on form at openside (over and above his usual berth at number eight), also delivering a percussive display in carrying around the fringes, Phil Dowson’s gamble on leaving England flanker Lewis Ludlam on the bench appears to have been based upon the simple logic of picking on form.

However, when discussing back-row forwards there’s the rest…and there’s the King of Northampton himself, the peerless Lawes. It’s likely he only has two or three matches left at his beloved Franklin’s Gardens before heading to France, and it’s no exaggeration to say he is the Saints’ finest-ever player in the illustrious history of this great club.

Yet again, the flanker was in towering form, absolutely dominating the line out both sides of the throw, carrying like a 20-year-old and hitting tackle after tackle in the manner we’ve come to expect from this giant of the game. It was fitting he got on the scorecard after a galloping run and when Lawes scores, so Franklin’s Gardens erupts, and that’s precisely what happened as the fans celebrated the autumnal moments of one of the greatest to pull on the green gold and black shirt.

Sloppy Saints

The Bulls’ ability to stay with Saints for the first half of this match was almost wholly down to the sloppiness of execution of the usually razor-sharp Northampton handling game. It took 30 seconds for Mitchell to have his first kick charged down and the pressure applied on his connectivity to Smith at half-back was a clear plan from the Bulls.

A lot of that pressure was down to the work of Hanekom and Nizaam Carr around the fringes, where both loose forwards pushed the offside line to the letter of the law, getting big in Mitchell’s face when clearing to touch and cutting down the short side to prevent the usual sniping work from the England scrum-half.

Their pressure paid dividends just before the break as Saints, attacking freely and looking for their fourth score, recycled close to the line and an attempted long miss-pass from Mitchell saw Sebastian de Klerk read the move and pick off of the pass on his own goal line to go fully 100m to score. It was effectively a 14-point turnaround moment, leaving the Bulls going in at half-time only six points behind, much against the run of the play. De Klerk was very impressive in his search for work and was unlucky to get another score chalked off due to a spear tackle by Hanekom on Dingwall that saw the back-row yellow carded after 50 minutes.

Some might say that Saints were sloppy and over eager in their desire to close the game off but the simple truth is that the Bulls were quite brilliant for 50 minutes in their pressure of Saints’ key players and they fully deserved the scores they created from their industry in defence.

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Smith targeting the channel

Smith’s stock is rising day by day and on Saturday’s performance it’s easy to see just why this young pivot is so highly rated. His ability to stand as flat as you like and then to move defenders around is at the centre of everything Saints look to do in attack.

Against the Bulls, we saw his vision create two tries simply by scanning the defence in front of him and then moving the ball into poorly defended channels.

Firstly, we saw a lovely miss-pass out to Tommy Freeman at 13 who then brought Ramm into the line from full-back to run 35 metres to score. Smith, Freeman and Ramm had almost pulled off the same move some 15 minutes previously but Ramm was pulled down before he could pass. This time however, Smith spotted Henry Immelman closing a shoulder off and the timing of the pass was perfect as the Bulls failed to drift and to defend the 13 corner, leaving Ramm a run in for the line.

The Saints 10 then showed his variety, feinting and looking at his outside backs before seeing a couple of front rowers defending the 12 channel and slipping a lovely pop pass to give Sleightholme an inside run to score on the flying wing’s birthday, a move he delivered once again in the second half to send the galloping Alex Coles over just after the break to take the hosts past the two score margin and effectively seal the game off.

But the best was yet to come from Smith; as Hanekom was walking off the pitch for his yellow, Sleightholme ran hard and deep into the Bulls defence before offloading to George Hendy and from the resulting lineout, Smith found himself attacking the line hard and slipped the most beautiful offload from behind the defender for Dingwall to score a very popular try.

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Proud Bulls

For all the mind games between the coaches before this match and the obvious self-inflicted depleted nature of the Bulls 23, the visitors can take a lot of pride from their performance and in particular, the showing of De Klerk on the right wing who demonstrated real pace with ball in hand as he ran in a long-range try and enjoyed a really spiky personal duel with Saints’ Hendy (and Ramm) in the wide channels.

Up front and as previously noted, both Hanekom and Carr really put themselves around in the breakdown and defensive duties, playing to an obvious plan of close-quarter pressure on to the pacy Saints handling game. In front of the two back-rows, Janko Swanepoel again added to his growing reputation, stealing a few crucial turnovers and demonstrating supreme mobility for a man of his considerable side.

But the bottom line is the Bulls are not competing on a level playing field. They came into this game on a platform of shambolic travelling arrangements, knowing that even if they did win, they couldn’t progress to any form of home tie.

Thankfully, this is just a one-off as next season, it will be an even playing field as the EPCR will give the nation that prides itself on its inclusive culture the same terms as the rest of the competitors. Finally, the South Africans will be allowed to fulfil the immense potential their clubs have on this stage.

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