Premiership: Five takeaways from Saracens v Northampton Saints as Owen Farrell leads his team to Twickenham
Following the 38-15 victory for Saracens over Northampton Saints at StoneX Stadium on Saturday, here’s our five takeaways from the Premiership semi-final.
The top line
A fearsome display of power, accuracy and experience saw Saracens overcome a Northampton Saints side that for the second season running struggled to get a foothold in a Premiership semi-final.
Saints supporters may feel aggrieved at the fact Sean Maitland was on hand to run in two early scores after his clear elbow to the face of George Furbank in an aerial challenge, but other than that the visitors were unable to cope with the gainline dominance of the men in black.
Player of the Match Ivan van Zyl scooted over for a third just before half-time, and in the second, a penalty try and a Max Malins run in off delightful passing from the absolutely outstanding Owen Farrell and Elliot Daly saw Saracens home.
Farrell was in one of his absolutely compelling moods; his defensive work simply set the standard for others to follow as he hit some bone crunching tackles from the 10 channel, and he even got in on the turnover count, snatching one himself as Sarries notched up six steals at the breakdown. In attack, his variety, speed of decision and incredible depth of pass reminded us this is a man at the top of his considerable powers. In short, both Farrell and Saracens were absolutely huge in every facet of the game and it was the captain’s shift that set the tone for all to follow.
Looking at the statistics of the match there was not one area where Northampton really had an advantage over Saracens or won a micro battle. At scrum-time, Sarries used intellect to pull out of hits, to roll in and prevent any form of purchase through streetwise engagement. In attack, five clean breaks to none, 11 defenders beaten to five, took the game well out of Saints reach, with tries on the end of four of those clean breaks. And in terms of offloading, a hallmark of the Northampton game, the hosts outmatched them by eight to none.
Detail is all in these situations; the sheer speed of the Saracens defensive line was quite remarkable – they clearly had spent a lot of time studying the attacking shape of Saints and little plays such as throwing a winger in as hooker at lineout time to allow an extra man maintaining width in the three quarter formation gave them extra numbers all afternoon to frustrate the attacking threat of Saints brilliant midfield.
Details at rucks were obvious too – either steal, compete powerfully or leave it to keep yourself in play were the clear instructions and with really low powerful and accurate body angles they simply took Saints apart on the floor. Other nuances, such as dropout restart pods and exit strategies were all things that Saracens executed better. It was a complete display, one that will please their coaches and fans greatly, and one that showed the complete nature of Saracen rugby.
Considering the excellence of the hosts, it seems churlish to single out a few big calls by the team of officials, but the first minute clash between Furbank and Maitland was one that Saracens were lucky to get out of unscathed.
In rising to the ball, Maitland stopped, was clearly reckless in challenge, committed foul play and hit Furbank’s head with relatively high force. Based upon the World Rugby framework, the starting point for that is a red card less any potential mitigation. For the Sarries winger not to see a sanction of any colour was quite remarkable and one wonders if the overturning of Charles Ollivon’s red from the same official in the EPCR Challenge Cup last week was an influencing factor.
The errors didn’t stop there. Courtney Lawes conceded a very strange penalty at ruck time when clearly on his feet, entering from the correct position and in a totally legal position. From that penalty, so the second Maitland try was scored. The Saracens penalty try in the second half came three phases after Farrell had gone about a foot into touch before he made his pass. Now, although the law doesn’t technically allow a TMO to intervene for something like this, they had the ability to do so when the penalty try was reviewed and for some inexplicable reason, they chose not to do that.
Whilst nothing can be taken away from Saracens’ all-round performance, these decisions cost Saints 21 points and also allowed Maitland to stay on the pitch. To be absolutely blunt, the standard of officiating was woeful, had a huge influence on the early outcomes, and had the match team made the correct calls in the first minute and thereafter we may well have seen a completely different game of rugby.
So long, farewell
For the Saracens faithful, this is the last time they will see a number of their heroes in black at the StoneX and to a man, each of their departing players put in a massive shift. Nobody worked harder than Jackson Wray, a man that departs the club after 15 years of incredible service. Alongside him, Duncan Taylor, Reuben de Haas and Malins all leave for pastures new, leaving behind them massive voids in key positions.
In Wray’s case, it’s retirement from the Premiership after over 300 games for his lifelong club. It’s quite remarkable, given his longevity and excellence that he has no international honours despite a squad call-up a few years back. For Malins, it’s a trip back to Bristol Bears, safe in the knowledge his last act in the black shirt at the StoneX was running in a try for his club.
Saints say farewell too – they lose the massive presence of David Ribbans to Toulon as the big Test lock looks to further his rugby experiences. And spare a thought too for Tom Collins – he (hopefully) joins beleaguered London Irish next year – and spent exactly three minutes on the pitch before accidentally clashing heads with Malins to leave the field bloodied for Saints – after 147 games and 49 tries.
Whilst Saints will be furious of how they were shut out in terms of their attack, the form of their half-backs will please the watching Steve Borthwick greatly. Scrum-half Alex Mitchell was easily the best player in white and he probably ruined Wray’s send-off with a brutal step to beat the big eight and to slide over to score. But they’ll have learned that accuracy and attention to detail is what separates teams at the very highest level, two areas they very much came second best in today.
For Saracens, they’ll be delighted how they went, especially considering the threadbare nature of their injury hit playing squad. Marco Riccioni again had a memorable match and continues to grow, whilst the return of Elliot Daly and his magical passing for 20 minutes is a real bonus for them for a fortnight’s time.
Above all, Saracens know they have the experience, desire and willpower to win another Premiership, especially with the brilliance of Farrell at 10. The fly-half looked liberated and happy, but underneath that demeanour he delivered yet another masterclass in winning rugby. Whoever Sarries face at Twickenham on May 27 has a monumental task list ahead of them and the biggest single one is to stop Farrell running the game.
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