Austin Healey Column
Saints stumble without star names
February 16, 2011
Exeter's Luke Arscott celebrates his side's victory over Harlequins at Sandy Park © Getty Images
You can always rely on the Aviva Premiership to take a couple of interesting twists and turns in the shadow of the Six Nations and last weekend's results underlined that fact.
The run-in to the end of the season is underway and while there are lot of top players missing due to international action the intensity of the matches reflected how important this stage of the season is to teams at both ends of the table.
In the pick of the results, Saracens destroyed Northampton with a powerful performance based around an impressive scrum. Carlos Nieto had a very good game at tight-head despite a yellow card and his strong showing enabled Ernst Joubert to dominate with ball in hand. Sarries seem to have this enviable ability to get their noses in front and then cement that advantage with some superb defence. Their line speed in particular was excellent in the second-half.
Northampton just couldn't get into the game and their usual attacking flair was nowhere to be seen. I suppose if you lose the likes of Joe Ansbro, Ben Foden and Chris Ashton from your backline and haven't got Courtney Lawes or Tom Wood in your forward pack you are likely to struggle, and so it proved.
Saints are battling on all fronts and you could argue that they haven't got the squad to do so. What you need in times like this is good halfbacks and they have not been helped on that front by an injury to scrum-half Lee Dickson. Then there's the old issue of their fly-half - is it Stephen Myler or Shane Geraghty?
Geraghty is a bit of a coin toss as you don't know what you are going to get. One time he'll make the right decision and the next he'll get turned over. And as for Myler, if you are in the team as a kicker then you have got to kick your points. A 63% success rate does not cut it in the Premiership, especially if you want to be one of the top sides.
Northampton are in danger of being victims of their own success. They started the season in great form and even their props were buying into the free-flowing rugby, while getting into sides at the breakdown, but they are being made to work a lot harder now. They are having bit of a mid-season lull and you wonder if they have got the capacity to break out of it. It will also be interesting to see what happens when their star players return from international duty somewhat fatigued.
Sarries and Gloucester are now very much in the running and I would have also put Harlequins in that bracket, but they were the victims of a stunning result against Exeter at Sandy Park at the weekend. I was convinced Quins were going to go there and win - they were riding a run of nine successive wins in all competitions - but the Chiefs upset the odds. It wasn't just their best result of the season, it was their best performance.
You could argue of course that their biggest win of the season was against Gloucester in the opening round of fixtures, and that victory was priceless in term of belief. It told the players that they can actually win in this league and that it's not that different from what they were used to. From a performance point of view they were a lot more confident against Quins than I have seen previously and Sireli Naqelevuki in particular had a great game.
Gloucester are playing with a maturity and control that you don't normally expect from them - especially away from home - and I think Luke Narraway is the barometer of the side. He's a player who could have been accused of making the odd rash decision in the past but his performance against Wasps was very accomplished and maybe the captaincy has refocused his mind.
I think their hopes depend heavily on how quickly James Simpson-Daniel gets back into the side after his knock as he has been a real spark for them this season. He seems to make a break or create something nearly every time he touches the ball. Charlie Sharples would be a relatively good replacement but without Sinbad I'm not sure they can hold on to that top four spot - he is the X-factor in that side.
Looking elsewhere I am sure Leicester will be delighted to come away from Leeds with a win. It has always been a bogey fixture for them and I'm sure Neil Back would have targeted that game. The hosts got themselves a bonus point but will have wanted more. That result just goes to show how crucial the Tuilagis are to Leicester - especially during the Six Nations.
Manu Tuilagi continues to catch the eye, with many tipping him for an England future, but with Martin Johnson's side seemingly on a Grand Slam roll in the Six Nations he may find his path to the international stage blocked. Johnson is not going to change a winning side so unless they lose to France or Scotland his chances remain remote. I'm not convinced he is ready to step up but we will not find out until he is thrown in.
On the subject of England, I was at a schools festival at the weekend and it was not surprising to hear everyone talking about Ashton. The kids thought he was brilliant so all this fuss and media frenzy about his celebration can't be too bad. I'm fine with celebrating when you cross the line but maybe you shouldn't be pumping the air 20 or 30 metres out because you know no-one can catch you.
I can understand those who see that as being disrespectful but I find Ashton a breath of fresh air and am delighted to see his Premiership form transfer to the Six Nations stage. He is funny and maybe a little irreverent but I don't think he is being disrespectful. He is just excited by the situation he finds himself in and as long as he is respecting the opposition then everything else he does is fine by me.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Austin Healey is Lead Analyst for ESPN Rugby