“Same old Sarries, always cheating,” came the chant from a Northampton supporter in the crowd. It is unclear whether he was moaning about the legality of some of their defensive work or perhaps making reference to how their salary cap scandal has been referenced a lot of late but he got one thing spot-on. This was without question the same old Saracens.
The Northampton director of rugby, Chris Boyd, bristled at the idea that a win such as this for Saracens was inevitable when Northampton found themselves camped in their opponents’ 22 for large spells of the first half, only to go in at the interval at 6-6. We have seen it so many times before, however, that there was little surprising about the manner in which Saracens weathered the storm and with Alex Lozowski finishing with 20 points, pulled clear.
This sort of performance, particularly on their travels, has been the hallmark of Saracens’ return to the Premiership. They have the defensive resilience to soak up prolonged periods of pressure before edging in front and delivering the telling blow as their opponents get increasingly desperate. Here it was Lozowski’s try early in the second half and Tom Woolstencroft’s score from a driving maul that ensured victory for Saracens – Maro Itoje’s late effort making for a thoroughly demoralising afternoon for Northampton.
It might have been different had Northampton managed to convert one of their chances in the first half – Boyd was adamant that repeatedly opting against kicking at goal was the right approach – and their supporters certainly felt that the referee Adam Leal ought to have shown a yellow card following a flurry of Saracens penalties. He did not, however, and after Northampton again opted for a scrum under the posts he penalised the home side – much to Boyd’s frustration.
Boyd said: “He didn’t have enough nuts did he? I mean it was a clear hinge. There was only one side under pressure in that series of scrums. At the end of the day we only got six points and they got 30. We had half a dozen opportunities in the first half, they had three and scored three tries. That’s the difference between the two sides.”
Northampton can regroup, at least safe in the knowledge that they are not the only side to suffer this kind of defeat at the hands of Saracens.
Bristol were also kept tryless at home back in September but they probably ought to have played the conditions better. They were not without positives – George Furbank was excellent at fullback – but just as was the case last time out against Harlequins at Twickenham, a touch more pragmatism could make all the difference when the heavens open.
Saracens, meanwhile, have cemented their grip on second spot. Jamie George made a successful return to the side from a knee injury – perhaps his most valuable asset was the manner in which he communicated with Leal when his side were under the pump – and Alex Goode again showed his class at fly-half, standing in for the injured Owen Farrell, who was in the coaches’ box, barking out instructions to his side. In a further boost for club and country, the Saracens director of rugby Mark McCall revealed Farrell could make his comeback on 23 January, two weeks before England’s Six Nations opener.
Lozowski and Biggar traded a pair of penalties in a first half notable for Northampton’s ambition despite the torrential rain and Saracens’ ability to hold firm in the trenches. Furbank in particular was a threat with the ball in hand, but Saracens were resilient with their backs to the wall. Given Saracens reached double figures in penalties against inside the first half, however, maybe Northampton’s grievances were not without foundation.
Saracens then struck with the first try four minutes after the restart. Goode was the architect, straightening through half a gap before offloading to Lozowski, who slid for the line early and had just enough momentum to get there. He converted for good measure for a seven-point lead.
There was no little endeavour from Northampton but as the half wore on there was increasingly an inevitability to the Woolstencroft try that broke Saints’ spirit. It occurred moments after the Saints replacement Conor Clarey had been sent to the sin-bin and before Itoje splashed over for good measure.
“When you’re under the pump, in front of a great crowd as Northampton have, in your 22 as often as we were you need your senior players to step up and I thought across the board ours did,” McCall said. “I thought we showed a lot of fight, grit and resolve. Just a really good hard fought away win.”