Saints secure fourth place
March 31, 2001
Watch out for fireworks in the quarter-finals of the Zurich Championship. This victory means that Northampton have secured fourth place in the Premiership, thereby grabbing home advantage, and their likely opponents are Saracens.
On the evidence of this scrappy bad tempered contest there is no love lost between the two clubs. There were a couple of nasty skirmishes and with a place in Europe possibly at stake expect a few more.
Tim Rodber led the team out while Garry Pagel and Allan Bateman also bade fond farewells before the start but now they can expect at least one more home appearance thanks, in part, to another rudderless performance from Saracens.
He is already resigned to losing Danny Grewcock, Tony Diprose seems likely to follow and he is fighting to hold on to Richard Hill, Julian White, David Flatman and Robbie Russell. Ten high profile players in all are out of contract at the end of this season and Pienaar says he will never allow that situation to arise again.
Rumours abound that there is considerable unrest among the senior forwards and yet again they lacked total commitment when the game reached its deciding phase in the final quarter. While Northampton dug in and grew in stature Saracens fell apart up front and lost their composure.
'I don't want to use it as an excuse,' said Pienaar. 'But our injury list is quite incredible. Kevin Sorrell played the whole match with a broken finger but we had nobody to replace him with.'
On the bright side Thomas Castaignede could be back for the play-offs and Pienaar concedes quarter-final success is vital. 'A place in Europe could obviously make a difference to some players staying or going,' he said. You get the feeling Saracens is not a happy place at the moment.
As so often this season they started well but faded the longer the macxth went on. Duncan McRae had a golden opportunity to open the scoring in the first minute but fired wide after Rodber came in from the side to grab the ball at a tackle. But he soon made amends with a well taken drop-goal from a line-out when Nick Beal sliced his clearance from a mark.
Brett Sparg then appeared to have given the speedy Richard Haughton a scoring chance only for the young winger to take his eye off the ball and knock-on before the game lost all shape and purpose for 20 minutes. Matt Dawson missed a penalty but Northampton went ahead after 24 minutes when they were gifted a try by Sorrell.
Saracens were attacking down the right when the centre decided to switch the direction of the attack only to telegraph his pass so badly that John Leslie had to wait for it to arrive before intercepting and cruising in unchallenged under the posts.
Dawson converted and should have put Saints further ahead a few minutes later only to make a horrible hash of a penalty from less than 15 metres and right in front after Saracens deliberately killed a ruck. It was a terrible miss after the first multi-phase attack from the home side orchestrated by Allan Bateman and Ben Cohen.
To rub salt into the wound Saracens scored immediately at the other end. There looked to be nothing on when Cohen closed down Haughton but Beal took his eye off the chip through and compounded the error by reacting too slowly to prevent McRae getting a boot to the ball and winning the race to the try-line.
At last Northampton responded with a movement of real class from their host of internationals. Cohen started it, Leslie made the initial break, Dan Richmond set up the first ruck, Olivier Brouzet the second and Bateman burst through the last line of defence to score.
He should have scored again on the very next attack. Cohen put him away on the left wing and he seemed certain to make the corner only to hesitate uncharacteristically five metres short. He found Rodber in support but the chance was gone. McRae kicked a penalty in the sixth minute of injury time to reduce the gap to a single point at half-time.
Saracens regained the lead 10 minutes into the second half, McRae landing another penalty after Pagel was sin-binned for a sly dig spotted by the touch-judge.
At least one Saracens player should have joined him five minutes later when, perversely, it was the 14 men of Northampton who had Saracens under such pressure that they dived went over the top of a ruck just a metre short to stop the try. The mass brawl which ensued probably stopped the referee from identifying the culprit. Paul Grayson, who had replaced Ali Hepher, punished Saracens with the penalty but that was poor reward for the home team.
At least it made them angry. With Pagel back they put Saracens under siege again and this time got their just reward - Dawson burrowing over in typical fashion from a quickly taken penalty. Grayson, converting from wide out and following up with a long penalty, made the game safe.
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