On paper, these two teams looked a little miss-matched as countless injuries had affected the London Irish pack, with the likes of Topsy Ojo, George Skivington and James O’Connor missing from the starting fifteen.
I assumed this would have put Northampton in a comfortable position going into the Easter Sunday game and I suspected a manageable win for the home side in front of the 13,475 crowd at Franklins Gardens â€“ but I was very wrong.
A win is a win but Northampton didn’t make it easy for themselves and London Irish have more than proven that they don’t rely on luck. What a game of two halves!
Saints were panicking early doors, with several disjointed phases of play which saw Stephen Myler continuously kicking to touch. However, an air of excitement and expectation whipped up along with the winds around the Gardens, when George Pisi smashed Shane Geraghty, but he kept calm and carried on. And quick offloads and a fast attacking line from the London Irish team meant they were continuing to pose a real threat.
However, the crowdâ€™s spirits soared with a moment of sparkle, as Jamie Elliott sprinted through to score, even with three defenders chasing him. A contentious try as it looked upheld but Geraghty nearly counteracted his efforts by mirroring Elliott’s play and it was only Myler who managed to prevent him from scoring at the other end, as he sprinted out of nowhere to bring down his opponent just short of the try line. A tremendous effort from Geraghty but Northampton were still in control â€“ just. The home crowd gave a sigh of relief.
The balance started to shift as London Irish were penalised in the scrum on several occasions and the control and composure brought by Kahn Fotuali’i meant Saints were in the driving seat â€“ especially when he crossed the line with ease.
The London Irish defence had been strong up until this point but they failed to organise themselves late on. This exact scenario repeated itself only six minutes later, as Northampton controlled the ball through the hands of the attacking back line and it was Jamie Elliott who scored in the corner for his second try of the game.
Leading up to half time, London Irish did look vicious on the attack in parts but this failed to be reflected on the score board, which read Saints 24-0 Irish. Their Achilles heel had been their failure to close – much to the Saintsâ€™ advantage.
It was a great restart from Northampton as Salesi Ma’afu made a break to score his first Premiership try for the Saints and Franklins Gardens erupted. Moments later George North made considerable ground and the crowd held their breath for an Easter treat, with a potential fifth try of the game for the Saints, but the Exiles were heavily fortified and they didn’t succumb to Northampton’s force.
The pace and intensity from Saints highlighted why they are a top Premiership team and it was Fotuali’i who showed incredible skill with his ability to get the ball away from the ruck ridiculously quickly. But Saints didn’t manage to prevent London Irish from putting points on the board.
The downward spiral started with Burrell playing foolish fancy football twenty minutes into the second half, enabling Andy Fenby to score for Irish. Alarm bells should have been ringing for Northampton but two minutes later Geraghty sprinted three-quarters of the pitch to score from an interception. Northampton were becoming lack-lustre and were in disarray and the Exiles had found their momentum.
Ebbs and flows â€“ peaks and troughs â€“ call it what you will. There is a tighter margin in this Aviva Premiership than people thought.
As Alex Waller was sin-binned with thirteen minutes left to play, the impact it had on the home team meant London Irish were muscling their way back into the game. The Saints pace had faded and the Irish pack prolifically pounded their defensive line, even after play stopped for five minutes as Matt Williams was sadly stretchered off with a suspected broken leg.
It was definitely not the luck of the Irish that won them the second half, putting 21 points on the Saints. Â Their attacking line was second to none and their tenacity was tremendous. A questionable try that could’ve been given to London Irish with six minutes to go would’ve taken the Exiles into the lead but the pass was claimed forward by the TMO and Northampton held on by the skin of their teeth.
Luckily for the Saints, Alex Waller secured their victory with a try in the dying seconds of the game but it’s fair to say, they didn’t make life easy for themselves.
It was definitely a game of two halves. The first, being one that will boost Northampton’s confidence and help to re-galvanise them for the Aviva Premiership semi-finals.
And the second half was one that will aid London Irish in gaining momentum as they look ahead to next season.
Shane Geraghty mentioned this to me after the game,:
â€œI think the character shown from a lot of the boys coming off the bench made a big impact, we took our chances, in comparison to the first half, the momentum shifted. I think we clawed ourselves back in position to even win it and that’s what we’re going to take on to the last two games but also to next year.â€
Even though Salesi Ma’afu was awarded Man of the Match, it was an incredible team performance from the Saints. Jamie Elliott, Stephen Myler and Kahn Foutali’i were the ‘tremendous trio’ for me. They all had a part to play in this clinical and crucial game that sees Northampton remain 2ndÂ in the Premiership.
Jim Mallinder spoke of his thoughts after the match:
â€œ’I think we probably had a good fifty minutes to be honest, I think we came and spoke at half time, about keeping that intensity and pace to our game. We got our bonus point and then seemed to click off, switch off.â€
But Northampton will have to ensure consistency if they want to secure that vital home semi-final.
They have the capability and the power rests in their hands.
Full Time: Northampton Saints 36-21 London Irish
By Rhiannon Chandler-Day
To see more from Rhiannon, please check out her blog at: rhiannonsrugbyunionblog.blogspot.co.ukrhiannonsrugbyunionblog.blogspot.co.uk