NORTHAMPTON, ENGLAND – History was made this weekend when Northampton and Saracens advanced to the Aviva Premiership Final at Twickenham. For the first time in a decade, the Leicester Tigers‘ season ended at the semi-final stage, an extraordinary run that concluded in extraordinary fashion. Both semi-final clashes were brutal, fast-paced (though error-strewn) affairs, and simultaneously illuminated the best and the worst of rugby union. Once more, RugbyWrapUp brings you a complete recap of this weekend’s action.
Northampton Banish Demons
The supporters at Franklin Gardens must have felt knots in their stomachs with the Saints down eight and only twenty minutes remaining. However, they did not let it show, putting on a raucous display of support punctuated by continuous cries of “When the Saints go Marching In.” From the first minutes of the match, it was clear that both teams were fully invested in putting on a physical display, trying to dominate their opposition. For the Tigers, this physicality backfired spectacularly, as they were rightfully awarded three yellow cards, and could have easily been awarded three more. Their indiscipline clearly stemmed from the top, as Richard Cockerill embarrassed himself with continual over-the-top displays of joy and outrage whenever an incident of note occurred. To the director’s credit, he acknowledged that Saints were deserved winners, but the coach, brilliant as his results have been, could use a long-overdue attitude adjustment.
In the tenth minute, Toby Flood opened the scoring with a penalty. From there, the Tigers continued to add to their lead, going into halftime with a 17-6 edge thanks to tries from Manu Tuilangi and Ben Youngs. After a spectacular campaign, Verniki Goneva had unquestionably his worst match, getting yellow carded and avoiding two more thanks to TMO intervention. His contributions throughout the year cannot be doubted, but it will be a long summer for the Fijian wing. In the fifty-sixth minute, the complexion of the match changed completely thanks to a dust-up between Tom Youngs and Salesi Ma’afu. Ma’afu saw red for a right hook befitting a boxer, while Youngs was shown a yellow for his role in the incident. The yellow to Youngs reduced the impact of the red, but Northampton dug heroically deep to continue to cut into their deficit. There was almost an air of inevitability about Tom Wood’s seventy-eighth minute try which awarded the Saints a deserved 21-20 victory.
For Northampton, their season will continue with the Amlin Cup Final against Bath. Jim Mallinder has already committed to squad rotation, prioritizing the Premiership final above the secondary European competition. However, Sarries are no longer the only side in England with a chance to achieve a sterling double. The Tigers will be ruing a season of missed opportunities and injuries. Leicester were without a majority of their squad for some part of the season, losing a list of stars that included Tom Croft, Dan Cole, Geoff Parling, Manu Tuilangi, Niall Morris, Miles Benjamin, Dan Bowden, and Matthew Tait. Though their luck must surely improve, it is a testament to the program that they have built that the Tigers were able to compete so well for so long. Nonetheless, the two best teams in the Premiership are unquestionably represented in the final.
Saracens Outlast Gutsy Harlequins
There were legitimate fears that the Saturday match between Quins and Saracens would be something of an anti-climax after that classic East Midland derby. Spectators need not have feared. The London derby was just as compelling, with Quins giving an astonishingly good account of themselves after an almost impossible ascension into the playoffs. Conor O’Shea’s team started out by pressing the home side hard, denying them possession for the better part of the opening five minutes, before Nick Evans slotted a penalty to open the scoring. Owen Farrell responded, though the offensive floodgates would not truly open for some time. In the opening half, Sarries were briefly reduced to thirteen men when Marcelo Bosch and Matt Stevens were sent off, the former for a dangerous tackle, and the latter for a deliberate knock. Quins took full advantage, scoring a skillfully opportunistic try from Ugo Monye by spreading the ball from side to side and stretching the short-handed Saracens defense. Chris Robshaw created a try for Mike Brown by disrupting a ruck, and at half-time, the Quins were full of belief, ahead 17-11. They wouldn’t score again.
Sarries came out of the locker room a rejuvenated side, while it looked as though the Harlequins had spent all their energy during the incredible first half. Saracens quickly gained a strangle-hold on the game, going ahead through a weaving Brad Barritt try. Farrell was uncharacteristically profligate, forgoing fourteen points in missed kicks. By the fiftieth minute, Saracens were running rampant. Mike Brown and Monye both had to pull out of the match in the sixty-sixth minute, injured and exhausted. Stuart Lancaster now faces an anxious wait over Brown’s fitness. The fullback endured a mixed day, kicking poorly from hand. Eventually, the home team simply overpowered the visitors, strolling to a 31-17 win that was simultaneously easier and more difficult than the scoreline seems. Truly, this was a match of two halves.
Harlequins can come away from the season and this match with their heads held high, besting the Premiership’s juggernaut for a half. After a disastrous February, the team exhibited great character in winning their final five matches to slide into the final playoff position. The result was as expected for Sarries, who turn their attention to the Heineken Cup final on Saturday. Mick McCarthy will have plenty to talk about with his team, but for now, they can rest easy as the favorites for England’s crown.
Feel free to comment below, please look for and “Like” our Facebook Rugby Wrap Up Pageand follow us on Twitter@ :RugbyWrapUp, Junoir Blaber, Nick Hall, James Harrington,Jamie Wall, Jaime Loyd, DJ Eberle, Cody Kuxmann, Karen Ritter, Jake Frechette andDeclan Yeats, respectively.