Strettle seals ding- dong battle with two late tries
Much was made in the buildup of the size of Northampton’s Australian international wing Taqele Naiyaravoro, but even approaching 20st he was no heavier than the four defeats the Saints endured against Saracens last season in the league and European Champions Cup.
They leaked 237 points and 33 tries then and while the champions recorded another bonus- point victory over the Saints, this was very different. They were 10 points down before acquainting themselves with the ball and the lead changed hands five times before Saracens pulled away in the fi nal 10 minutes.
Northampton scored all but the final three of their points when Saracens had a forward in the sin- bin. The England hooker Jamie George was the fi rst to see yellow 14 minutes into the match, punished for his side’s serial maul collapsing. Saints took the lead with a try from a scrum in front of the Saracens’ posts, close to the 22- metre line.
Dan Biggar lined up directly behind the set- piece with the full- back, Ahsee Tuala, lurking close to him to leave defenders guessing about the direction of the attack. As the scrum wheeled, Northampton quickly moved the ball left, against the fl ow of the defence and the centre Piers Francis, in front of Eddie Jones, fi xed the defence on an outside line and two tacklers collided as he cut inside to score.
George was waiting to come back on when Billy Vunipola came into a ruck from the side and Biggar made it
Billy Vunipola’s tackle had all the impact of a fl ying insect on a Formula One car in full fl ow
10- 0. Saracens’ few attacks had ended prematurely through handling errors or the burglary skills of Heinrich Brussow and James Haskell at the breakdown. They were missing the authority of their injured fly- half, Owen Farrell, but his replacement Alex Goode gradually grew into the game.
Goode stood fl at and attacked the line, committing defenders before spreading play. Northampton, for all the smart thinking in Francis’s try, were at their most menacing driving mauls but Saracens were more comfortable in space and drew level with two tries by the wing Alex Lewington in four minutes.
The fi rst came when Goode fi elded Biggar’s kick just outside his 22. He was enveloped by three tacklers, but smuggled the ball out and when Ben Spencer took possession he spotted that Naiyaravoro and Tuala were out of position and that there was no cover on Northampton’s right wing. He kicked long and Lewington gathered the ball as it crossed the tryline.
His second came after Saracens took play through multiple phases with unhurried passing. Northampton, having been given fi rst use of the slope, preferred to play for position. Naiyaravoro would not have seen much less of the ball had he been in Australia: he received it twice in the opening half and the second time was a thunderous occasion in front of the main stand that left it juddering.
The wing had eased through Liam Williams without feeling the full- back’s challenge before he saw Billy Vunipola in front of him. The England No8 is not used to deferring to anyone when it comes to a trial of strength. He led with his right shoulder, thumping into an object that had by now gathered momentum. He had all the impact of a fl ying insect on the front grille of a Formula One car in full fl ow.
Spencer had given Saracens a 10- point advantage with a try from a ruck and a penalty. But a yellow card was the catalyst for Northampton. When Billy Vunipola was sent to the sin- bin for entering a driving maul from the side, Saints were in the middle of a period of fi ve lineouts from penalties that ended when Dylan Hartley was pushed over the line. A Goode penalty gave the champions respite but Harry Mallinder’s long pass set up Ben Franks for the try that put the home side in front.
Goode and Biggar exchanged penalties but as the home support prepared to bury the ghosts of last season, two David Strettle tries gave Saracens another bonus point victory. They were measured when it mattered and they had to be.
David Strettle is stopped by Northampton’s Courtney Lawes but the veteran Saracens wing had the last laugh