Northampton v Saracens: Five takeaways as Saints win ‘virtually every’ individual battle and Premiership says goodbye to several greats

James While
Alex Mitchell and Owen Farrell during the Premiership semi-final between Northampton Saints and Saracens.

Alex Mitchell and Owen Farrell during the Premiership semi-final between Northampton Saints and Saracens.

Following a 22-20 victory for Northampton Saints over Saracens in the Premiership semi-final, here’s our five takeaways from the game at Franklin’s Gardens.

The top line

This semi-final had it all; artists v artisans, Dick Dastardly v Penelope Pitstop, the kings v the new pretenders, and it was apt that the drama continued to the final moments as Northampton Saints, at the third time of trying in the last four seasons, finally made their way to a Premiership final as they disposed of a proud and magnificent effort from Saracens.

It was a game of ebb and flow, dominated by mighty and at times quite astonishing defence and it took two moments of individual brilliance, one from George Furbank and the other from Owen Farrell, to trouble the whitewash.

The commitment was breathtaking, the physicality bone-shuddering and the ebb and flow of the game quite remarkable, but there’s some justice in Northampton, the team that finished high and mighty at the top of the Premiership table, moving on to next week’s final.

Finest of margins

To say this match was one of knife-edge moments is an understatement. The margins were remarkably close, with defence and collision ruling over handling and running, but for Saints they can look back at this and say, quite honestly, they beat Saracens at their own game.

For the first 20 minutes, it was all the visitors – a penalty count of 8-2 in the first quarter told you all you needed to know as Saints held on by their finger tips. But slowly, their big players got into the match. It was somehow inevitable that Courtney Lawes would hold the aces and as he started to dominate the airways and the floor, so Saints made inroads.

With Sarries on the back foot, interplay down the touchline saw the ball sweep back infield and the wonderful Alex Mitchell set Furbank on his way. As Nick Tompkins overcommitted and doglegged his own line, so the England full-back set Burger Odendaal on his way under the posts with a divine offload.

Mitchell was quite brilliant at times and in the second half a back door offload to Fraser Dingwall and then back to Mitchell on the loop pass looked for all money to have set up Saints second try, and but for a superhuman piece of defence in the corner from Juan Martin Gonzalez, it might well have been all over.

The match wasn’t done there. A moment of chaos on the wide channels saw Farrell in space, and, rather fittingly, one of his last major acts in a Saracens shirt was to offer a brilliant dummy, followed by a grubber along the floor, to see Alex Lewington sprint home for a try that left Sarries one last play to close off the game. But it wasn’t to be as Saints held up their visitors in the restart and as Christophe Ridley blew his whistle, so Franklin’s Gardens erupted.

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The key head-to-heads

Much was made of how many great players were going up against each other in the lead up to this game. World-class match-ups abounded, from 15 to 1, not to mention the bench impact, and it says something about the manner Saints pulled through that they won virtually every one of those individual battles, save at seven where Ben Earl once again shone like the world-class player he is.

The big differences were at full-back, where Elliot Daly had an absolute shocker and Furbank shone, scoring the killer try and looking far safer. The front-row battle went all Saints’ way, as, surprisingly, did the bench impact.

But it was at nine where the biggest difference shone through as Mitchell put in a performance that simply demonstrated his credentials as one of the leading nines in world rugby. Luther Burrell commented on Planet Rugby that the nine that gelled best with his 10 would pull through and as both Farrell and Fin Smith had memorable matches, so Mitchell rose to become the game changer.

Test match physicality

To watch these two wonderful sides exchanging blow after blow on the gain line for fully 80 minutes saw both defences hit near Test match level of intensity.

For once, Saints were shackled by the abrasion and organisation of a brilliantly organised Sarries rush; playing a 13-2 the visitors managed to maintain width, preventing Saints getting any form of ball into the hands of wide runners. Double teaming on the point of pass was the order of the day and both Earl and Billy Vunipola were absolute walls in defence and a nuisance.

With referee Ridley at his most punctilious around the breakdown, inaccuracy was punished severely and for the first 20 minutes it was all Saracens as Saints struggled to gain a foothold in the contest.

But for all the brilliance in defence of the visitors, so Saints matched them almost blow by blow. Led by Tom Pearson and Lawes, Saints were streetwise and intelligent in disrupting the final pass, holding men up or isolating them before delivering a massive hit on the point of pass, closing down any width that Saracens tried to create.

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So long, farewell

Lawes, Lewis Ludlam, Alex Moon and Alex Waller, four titans of Saints rugby, left the Gardens pitch for the final time. To sum up their contribution to the green, gold and black is almost impossible and, in Lawes’ case, he leaves the pitch arguably as the greatest Saint of all time.

They will live to fight another day and Twickenham next week will be the theatre for their very last hurrah, one that will capture the hearts of the neutral and the minds of everyone else in the sport.

For Saracens, they lose four all-time greats of their club, and arguably the greatest Sarrie, the brilliant and magnificently abrasive Farrell. With Billy and Mako Vunipola (and Sean Maitland who wasn’t playing tonight) also leaving, the holes in Saracens are huge, but this club regenerates like no other and they will come again.

For the fans of both teams, tonight was a bittersweet moment; a disappointment or an elation, depending on your allegiance, but above all, it was a celebration of six or seven of the greatest players to ever grace the Premiership and the game is better for their presence.

READ MORE: Fin Smith kicks 17 points as Northampton Saints knock out Saracens in Premiership semi-final