“Sometimes you need a punch to the face.” The Saracens director of rugby, Mark McCall, offered this line in reference to his team’s surprise defeat last week to Toulon in the European Challenge Cup semi-final. But the same Spartan logic applied to this latest bonus-point victory in the Premiership that underlined their title credentials and secured a home semi-final in their first season back in the top flight.
That 25-16 reverse in France dumped Saracens out of a competition they looked destined to win. And for the first 40 minutes here, including eight minutes with a two-man-advantage, they were disjointed. Despite bossing territory and possession they went into the break 9-10 down. What followed was a resounding reminder that this is an organisation that holds itself to a higher standard.
They exploded into the second period and were in the lead through Nick Tompkins who started and completed a move one minute after the restart. Then Rotimi Segun burst through the middle and was halted five metres short. A swift recycle, a bullet pass from Owen Farrell and a neat shovel from Alex Goode provided a walk-in for Alex Lewington. The game was made safe when Theo McFarland blocked Alex Mitchell’s kick and dotted down. Farrell’s conversion opened a 28-10 lead.
It was Farrell who registered the first points with two penalties early in the contest. When Saracens next won a penalty they went to the corner and most inside the StoneX assumed their vaunted maul would triumph. But Northampton defended fanatically. Courtney Lawes and Api Ratuniyarawa were chaotically disruptive. Even when their pack lost a combined 507lb after Alex Coles and Lewis Ludlam were sent to the sin-bin within two minutes of each other, Northampton kept Saracens at arm’s length.
Dan Biggar halved the gap before Tommy Freeman’s scything line against the grain saw him score a sucker-punch try. Farrell kicked another penalty late in the half but the Saints held their advantage.
With a World Cup winner, a Six Nations grand slam champion, and six British and Irish Lions among their starters, Saracens knew they had to live up to the hype. They duly delivered with a nine-minute, three-try blitz. Northampton refused to quit and landed a blow of their own with substitute Rory Hutchinson scoring from close range. But his simple finish was cancelled out by McFarland’s sumptuous second. The Samoan has represented his country in basketball and he showed why with a spectacular horizontal slam-dunk finish.
In its own right, it was box office, but seen from a distance it demonstrated Saracens’ ability to reach extra gears when required. They may have stumbled on the European front but that seems to have only strengthened their resolve domestically.
With the game breaking apart at the seams, Goode scored a stunner. Neat interplay from some of the heavies preceded a cute dink from Farrell for the onrushing full-back. He gathered, stepped, jinked and slid over, all while evading three defenders.
With the crowd already frothing, the Saints contributed to the party atmosphere. Biggar’s cross-kick was caught by Freeman who cantered up field, cut inside and fed Tom James in support for an easy score. James had a second and Matt Procter scored with an acrobatic dive in the corner to offer the suggestion of a comeback, but the deficit was too great. No matter, Northampton’s fightback secured two bonus points which crucially move them ahead of Gloucester in the race for a spot in the final four. That Gloucester’s last game is against Saracens will offer further hope for Saints.