Saints sunk on final day
April 28, 2007
"The scenes that followed were evidence of a bond that is the strongest reason for believing that Northampton's exile from the Premiership will be shortlived." Huw Richards reports
In the end it all felt, as one of my more perceptive press box colleagues acknowledged in a question to London Irish coach Brian Smith, like an intrusion of private grief. Smith felt it as well, explaining that he'd gathered his players in the centre of the Franklins Gardens pitch for 'some closure on our own season' and then realised 'it wasn't really the time and place'.
Saints trudged around miserably, waving to their fans in acknowledgement of support that lasted until and beyond the end - the majority were still standing in their places or around the side of the pitch to cheer the players. French number eight Christian Labit injected a brief moment of poignant cheer, exchanging passes with his tiny son.
It had been a subdued afternoon from the start. The mood beforehand was pensive, groups of fans, who on another blessed with such glorious weather would soon have been riotously good-humoured, settling for quiet contemplation of what was to come.
A minute's silence for Saints legend Don White, who died last week aged 80, observed so impeccably that dogs could be heard barking in the adjoining streets, somehow fitted the mood.
Still, the Saints team had been received uproariously as they warmed up beforehand, then again as they followed the white-clad Irish on to the pitch.
The visitors, though, demonstrated that opponents who have nothing to play for are not always the advantage they are painted. They also have nothing to worry about.
In the first minute Bruce Reihana failed to find touch. Topsy Ojo and Sailosi Tagicakibau launched a counter-attack that only ended five yards short of the Saints line when Ricky Flutey's floated pass to wing Justin Bishop was ruled forward.
Four minutes later Ojo broke on the left and seemed to have wasted a chance when he weaved inside, only to stroll past a poor tackle by John Clarke and reach the line.
Saints nerves were also evident in an uncharacteristic fumble by Reihana and an extraordinary outbreak of indecision by Cohen, running almost in a circle before he was downed in midfield.
Carlos Spencer, though, seemed comparatively unfazed and within a minute of Cohen's Homer Simpson-in-a-panic impersonation had produced a stunning clean break and scoring pass for Reihana, whose conversion levelled the scores.
Cue bedlam, under other circumstances. But by then the news of Worcester's early score against Saracens was starting to seep through. This, throughout, was the dampener on Saints - that whatever they did, they were at the mercy of events elsewhere.
Attention to those events, though, was comparatively low-key. When Saracens produced their only score of the afternoon close to half-time there was none of the audible ripple of celebration, growing to cheers as the news spreads, that is to be heard on soccer grounds under current circumstances.
This was hardly, though, the battle of attrition that might have been expected. Instead two teams capable of playing open rugby responded to conditions designed for it with long spells of fluency.
Saints eventually pulled away to win 27-22 with second-half tries from Sean Lamont and Mark Robinson, the sort of performance that might have saved them if replicated a few more times earlier in the season.
Both were uproariously cheered, but the response to Robinson's score in particular, effectively sealing victory 18 minutes from time, was that of fans acclaiming a decent performance on the day rather than a great escape.
With the news from Worcester increasingly bad for Northampton, the final quarter - though played out with purpose by both teams- was overlain by a miasma of misery, broken by occasional choruses of 'When the Saints Go Marching in' and one mordant rendition of 'Always Look on the Bright Side of Life'.
That the season ended with Northampton standing under the posts following Seilala Mapasua's second try for Irish was somehow appropriate.
The scenes that followed were evidence of a bond between the club and its fans that is the strongest reason for believing that Northampton's exile from the Premiership will be shortlived.
Ninety minutes after the match had ended there were still hundreds in groups on the pitch, many crowded around Reihana who had earlier thanked the fans for standing by the team and
Paul Grayson, as ever admirable in adversity, accepted that 'ultimately you get what you deserve'. Six wins from a Premiership season was always a recipe for relegation - Worcester are the first team to survive with so few since 1999.
Typically he retained a sense of proportion, pointing out that this hardly compares with the day at Franklin's Gardens when young prop Matt Hampson was critically injured.
Private grief, yes, but expressed with great dignity. Saints - and if the club's management have any sense, Grayson - will be back before long. In the meantime they and their fans will be a huge asset to that seriously underrated competition, League One.