â€œWe’ve talked about this every Monday. We’ve talked about being Champions every Monday of the year and how we’re going to get thereâ€ Dylan Hartley.
So I woke up and kept saying to myself: Â ‘I just have a good feeling about today,’ but admittedly I was anxious. This was the second Premiership final Northampton had played in two years.Â Could they overcome the hurdle this time on the back of a painful loss to Leicester Tigers in 2013?
It felt like it was their time but was it?
It looked doubtful with the scores level at 80 minutes and the nail-biting tension of extra time. And even though it was the most nerve-racking last 20 minutes for any supporter, belief was what it took to see Northampton over the line in the dying seconds. Â Goo bye ‘why not us?’ and hello Aviva Premiership Champions 2014.
Tom Wood reflected on the importance of belief after the match:
â€œWe always believe in ourselves towards the back end of games, fitness wise. We could see them tiring as we all were to be fair. It was an intense game but we always felt that was our edge…it felt like it was ours to winâ€
Northampton Saints did themselves and everyone associated with the club proud. Not to mention the dedication of the win from captain Wood and the team to his mascot – 12 year old Luis Ghaut, who’s suffering from osteosarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer. Luis has taken social media by storm, raising awareness of the condition with help from none other than Alex Corbisiero who started the ‘Yesâ€™ Â movement trending in support of this inspirational young man.Â Â
So with that in mind and on the back of the Saintsâ€™ Amlin Cup win eight days earlier, belief in the camp was high.
Saracens arrived at Twickenham on foot and they were welcomed by a tunnel of red confetti and a barrage of bustling supporters applauding them. Similarly, as the Northampton Saints bus arrived, their supporters were also in full voice. Belief in bucketloads on both sides as 81,193 fans took their seats for the showdown.
But when you took away the supporters, back room staff and the Directors of Rugby, we were left with 30 men, one pitch and a battle – a battle of the best.
So where were you when Northampton Saints won the Aviva Premiership at Twickenham Stadium, the home of English Rugby, on 31st May 2014?
Referee JP Doyle was starring in his first ever Aviva Premiership final â€“ he awarded no yellows, no reds and no manbags came out – and if you werenâ€™t there or werenâ€™t watching, well it was totally unbelievable – beyond belief and as Premiership Rugby tweeted in the throes of the match, â€˜Drama drama Drama drama Drama drama Drama drama Drama dramaâ€™ And they werenâ€™t joking!
There was nothing really to separate Saints and Sarries in the first half. They had both raised the bar to a level of intensity like no other.
The sheer physicality of the game and the acceleration, drive and momentum created by the players made for absorbing viewing. The contest was bound to be a tough one but Northampton took a while to reinvigorate their momentum and mojo as a few careless handling errors made way for the first points of the game to be settled with a penalty, fromÂ the boot of Owen Farrell. And only six minutes later he added to his tally – 6-0.
The play seemed quite daring in parts with both teams challenging copious amounts of high kicks, causing the crowd to sigh as the ball saw the blue skies. But even with Northampton causing demolition in the scrambling defence, with a spectacular sandwich tackle on Farrell from an interception pass, the Saints were penalised for not rolling away at the break down. Farrellâ€™s kick went wide.
The Saintsâ€™ response was swift.Â An incredible run by Ken Pisi brought Northampton to life. He dodged several defenders with his fancy footwork and gained his team considerable ground , scorching out of his 22 into the Saracens 22. The momentum was maintained and as the ball swept along the back line at speed Ben Foden crossed the try line at pace, Twickenham erupted!
Stephen Myler converted to take the Saints into the lead, but right up to half time they found themselves defending their try line like their lives depended on it! Â The Saints went into the break on the front foot… but only just.
Half time,Â Northampton Saints 7-6 Saracens
Sarries came out all guns blazing and I could sense they were about to tear up the pitch as another penalty by Farrell edged them forward, four minutes into the second half.
But in no time at all, Northampton were back playing their way, matching the quick pace of the Wolf Pack. It was tantalising to watch with dollops of remarkable rugby all over the pitch. Hard hits, impeccable impact and fierce facets of play got the adrenaline pumping just that little bit more!
Especially when an astonishing hit from Owen Farrell on George North saw him bounce and land hard. It was a real stinker of a tackle and with possession of the ball lost for Northampton, it became like ping pong, back and forth it went. Â
And then it was time… time to bring on the deadly Dylan Hartley with just over 25 minutes to go. He needed no introduction, just a standing ovation from the Saints Nation! He was back and he was back with a vengeance. He needed to make an impression and he did just that. He said after the game;
â€œThis is a testament to years of hard work and this year especially a squad effort, we’ve got an unbelievable squad.â€
Into the last quarter we went and with two points in it, my stomach was churning. But in a matter of moments a chip from Myler saw North charge through the Saracens defence making phenomenal ground. When the ball came back to Myler a few metres out, he prodded a deft kick through the Saracensâ€™ defence for George Pisi to dive ontoÂ and score. Mr Myler converted.Â
Back came Sarries. Bulldozing Billy Vunipola looked exceptional as always on the attack. He committed to every tackle. Â If there was a ruck, he was there creating turnovers. If there was an opportunity to blast through the Saints defence, he was there. He definitely added the ammunition the Saracens had been searching for.
The London side took charge and the boiling point came when they seamlessly soared into the Saints 22. Farrell crossed the line and dotted down. The try was awarded and ‘Sarries, Sarries’ was chanted around the stadium… but it turned out to be premature.Â
On closer inspection by Graham Hughes the TMO, the pass to Farrell was ruled forward, the try was disallowed and the score reversed.Â Disbelief and shock swamped the Saracens supporters, not to mention the players. Farrell hobbled off with a leg injury.
We knew this game would be close but just how close?
With the momentum back to Saints, Courtney Lawes made his mark, with a mammoth hit on Charlie Hodgson that was felt by the whole stadium.
But in a split second Northampton were caught off guard and Marcelo Bosch scored in the corner. It had been a long time coming andÂ a well-deserved try but with scores level at 14 a-piece and with just six minutes left to play Hodgsonâ€™s conversion kick bounced off the post.
The tension grew as the clock wound down and then, for the very first time, a Premiership final was into extra time.
The teams were allowed a brief moment to huddle, recuperate and prepare for another gruelling 20 minutes of intense rugby, as if 80 minutes wasn’t enough!
So into extra time the game went, but it seemed to go so quickly. Myler and Hodgson both kicked penalties in the first ten minutes so the score remained level yet again, 17-17 going into the last ten.
With time ticking away, Northampton were penalised for an off the ball tackle on Hodgson and he booted the ball to secure a vital three point lead.
Two minutes to go and Northampton worked their way to within a few metres of the Saracensâ€™ try-line. All they needed was a drop goal, but the drive and determination of a succession of pick and go plays edged them closer and closer to the line.
And then it was crunch time. The ball was over,Â but was it grounded? The TMO was consulted and on the stroke of the 100th minute, the fate of the last game of the Premiership season was in the hands of Graham Hughes. “Try – Yes or No?”
More than 80 thousand nervous onlookers and 30 ultra exhausted and equally nervous players awaited the decision, and then it came.Â An almighty explosion and eruption of elation lifted Twickenham off its’ foundations.Â Alex Waller had scored the match-winning try on the 100th minute, made history and taken his team to the title.Â While the Saints Nation celebrated and the Saracens players and supporters slumped,Â Myler kicked the last points of the game and that was it â€“ they’d done it.
Northampton Saints were Champions of the Aviva Premiership 2014!
Full Time Northampton Saints 24-20 Saracens
Stephen Myler injected pace and precision across the pitch and was deservedly named Man of the Match. But Northampton’s passion spanned the whole team from one to 23 and the intuitive nature and camaraderie the team showed just gave them that extra edge over the Saracens.Â
After the match, Jim Mallinder said: â€œI think it’s fantastic for the club.Â It’s the first Premiership title. And particularly after coming close twice, last year and the Heineken Cup, it’s a special moment.â€
â€œIt’s the best. We’ve generally been on the up the last seven years. We’ve had a couple of disappointments but we always talked after the disappointments that when we won a big one it would be sweeter and it is.â€
But how can I not commend this exceptional London side? They pride themselves in professionalism, courage and bravery and they’ve been leaders from the word go.
The Wolf Pack has been tamed for the moment but they’ll be back and probably even stronger next season…
For now though, this is Northampton’s time to shine.
By Rhiannon Chandler-Day (@RhiannonCDay)
To see more from Rhiannon, please check out her rugby blog at: rhiannonsrugbyunionblog.blogspot.co.ukrhiannonsrugbyunionblog.blogspot.co.ukÂ