Saints book play-off place

Published: Saturday 25th April 2015 by The News Editor

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League leaders Northampton booked an Aviva Premiership play-off place after Stephen Myler booted them to a 25-20 victory over title rivals Saracens in Milton Keynes.

A stadium:mk record crowd of 27,411 – it beat the previous best set when MK Dons knocked Manchester United out of the Capital One Cup 4-0 last August – enjoyed an enthralling contest between two fierce rivals.

Fly-half Myler booted six penalties and converted Samu Manoa’s try for a 20-point haul to thwart Saracens, who struck early with two Chris Wyles tries, while Charlie Hodgson kicked two penalties and two conversions.

Saints, who still have bottom club London Welsh to play at home, also remain on course for a home semi-final, and a comeback win from 14-6 adrift said everything about their character.

Saracens did not quite have enough in the tank after their narrow European Champions Cup semi-final loss to Clermont Auvergne in France last Saturday, but they should still join Northampton in next month’s Premiership knockout phase.

And they must also hope that injuries to back-row forwards Billy Vunipola and Jackson Wray are not long-term after they both went off during the opening 40 minutes.

England lock Courtney Lawes returned for Northampton after missing their defeat against Exeter two weeks ago, while Manoa switched from second-row to number eight and Salesi Ma’afu featured at tighthead prop alongside front-row partners Alex Corbisiero and Dylan Hartley.

Saracens showed a number of changes from their loss in Saint-Etienne, which included starts for the likes of wing David Strettle, prop James Johnston, hooker Schalk Brits and flanker Kelly Brown.

The teams were introduced to the Princess Royal, who attended in her role as patron of international development charity Transaid, before kick-off, while Northampton wore a St George’s Day kit of red and white designed to support Help for Heroes.

But Saracens flew out of the blocks, and they stunned Saints with a fifth-minute try after Strettle appeared at first receiver, then moved possession to Hodgson, before centre Marcelo Bosch delivered a scoring pass to Wyles.

It was a simple, but brilliantly-executed score, that Hodgson’s successful touchline conversion complemented, and although Myler kicked two penalties that cut the deficit, Saracens posted a second try after 13 minutes.

Saints panicked in defence, courtesy of a poorly-judged pass by Myler to lock Christian Day, and after Saracens secured turnover ball, number eight Billy Vunipola sent Wyles dashing over for his second try, with Hodgson again converting.

Northampton looked short on confidence, and they needed a swift response, which arrived when England centre Luther Burrell’s sharp break shredded Saracens’ defence and Manoa galloped over for a try that Myler converted, making it 14-13.

Hodgson and Myler then each missed penalty chances before Saracens blew rugby’s equivalent of an open goal.

Billy Vunipola did the hard work, charging down an attempted Myler clearance and given him an open route to the line, but he stumbled after collecting the ball and a knock-on was ruled by referee Greg Garner following consultation with the television match official as he dived over.

It was a huge let-off for Northampton, but Vunipola’s afternoon ended three minutes later when he was forced off with his ankle strapped following a crunching collision with Manoa.

Manoa was penalised for the challenge, and Hodgson gratefully accepted an opportunity from 48 metres, giving Saracens a 17-13 advantage as half-time approached.

But there was further injury trouble for Saracens when Wray, who had replaced Vunipola, appeared to be knocked out following a clash of heads with his team-mate Ernst Joubert, and Jim Hamilton joined the action with Maro Itoje switching from lock to blindside flanker.

Wray received extensive treatment on the pitch before he was carried off to a rousing reception from both sets of fans, and Saracens preserved their four-point lead at the break.

Saracens appeared for the second period wearing their first-choice black shirts – there was no immediate explanation for the change from white – and Hodgson opened up a seven-point lead through his second successful penalty.

The game was played at a breathtaking pace, and after Itoje received a yellow card for killing possession, Northampton created a gilt-edged scoring chance for wing Ken Pisi, yet he was held up over the line by a magnificent Alex Goode tackle.

Myler, though, rapidly cut the gap to a point with two penalties in four minutes that set up a pulsating closing quarter that oozed everything good about English domestic rugby.

Another Myler penalty gave Northampton the lead for the first time with 17 minutes left as Saracens’ discipline continued to let them down, and Northampton had the play-offs within their sights when Myler sealed the deal 10 minutes later.

Published: Saturday 25th April 2015 by The News Editor

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