Blessed relief for Saints
PA Sport's Andrew Baldock
March 29, 2007
Relaxation is not a word normally associated with an away Heineken Cup quarter-final against French giants Biarritz.
But anything that drags Northampton from their Guinness Premiership slog, even for just a few days, must surely come as blessed relief to all those connected with struggling Saints.
The relegation-haunted squad heads to San Sebastian this weekend - arguably the most stunning location used in 12 seasons of Heineken Cup rugby - and an appointment with last year's beaten finalists.
If the form guide holds true, Saints face a thumping in what should be the most one-sided of this weekend's four ties.
But at least Paul Grayson's men can play free of the shackles surrounding a prolonged fight to preserve Premiership status.
Saints are in a right old mess, one point behind 11th-placed Worcester with three games left - away to Newcastle and Wasps, followed by a Franklin's Gardens clash against London Irish on April 28.
Relegation, of course, does not respect reputations, and Northampton find themselves in a position purely of their own making.
A solitary victory in their last nine league games is an alarming results sequence that has National League One written all over it.
And given how Worcester have won three Premiership fixtures on the bounce - generating that priceless word 'momentum' in the process - the smart money is probably against Saints being able to turn things around.
Some might argue that a season outside the top flight would serve no harm and allow Northampton time to regroup, reassess and rebuild ready for a rapid return.
Remember, this is a club that conquered Europe seven years ago, becoming only the second English club to lift the Heineken Cup, and also nurtured England World Cup winners like Matt Dawson, Ben Cohen and Steve Thompson.
In Keith Barwell, they possess a dedicated, loyal chairman, whose enthusiasm, business acumen and finances combined to produce possibly the Premiership's finest stadium in the shape of a major Franklin's Gardens redevelopment project.
Saints supporters have also provided unwavering backing. Despite a painful domestic experience this term, Northampton repeatedly enjoy sell-out home crowds.
The buck then, as it always must do, stops with the players and coaching staff.
Former England fly-half Grayson is still learning the head coach's trade, but many astute judges have no doubt he has an international pedigree in terms of his future track-suited career.
Few people, if any, at Franklin's Gardens can have felt the agony of failure this season more than Grayson, who amassed over 1,000 league points for Northampton and helped them land Europe's premier club prize in 2000.
He has deserved far better from a star-studded Saints squad, but there is still time to complete a great escape, even if the odds are stacked against it.
When the going gets tough, the tough get going, and it is down to the players - big names like Cohen, Carlos Spencer, Bruce Reihana, Sean Lamont and Mark Robinson - to somehow dredge up three lung-busting Premiership performances.
Sunday's San Sebastian adventure comes as a welcome break, but it is irrelevant to the business of Premiership survival. Only events during the next month at Newcastle, High Wycombe and Northampton really matter.
Saints narrowly avoided the drop two years ago, but the coach driver is once again revving his engine for possible destinations like Doncaster, Exeter, Newbury and Nottingham.
If relegation becomes reality, how many of Saints' current squad will board the bus alongside him remains to be seen, yet any player who allows himself to be distracted by personal job security, given Northampton's current predicament, is letting down a great club.
One in, all in, has to be the battle-cry, or Saints won't even give themselves a fighting chance of staying up.
Matt Perry announced his retirement this week at the age of 30.
Finally beaten following an endless battle to overcome injury problems, the Bath player has called it a day following an outstanding career that saw him win 36 England caps and gain Lions Test honours during the 2001 tour of Australia.
Perry, England's most capped full-back, was a fearless performer who combined bravery with a razor-sharp rugby brain.
One of his finest performances though, perhaps came in defeat, when England wound up their so-called 1998 Tour from Hell against South Africa in Cape Town.
Just seven days earlier, England were battered by the All Blacks in Auckland, and after a marathon journey via Hong Kong, Clive Woodward's squad was just about on its last legs - mentally and physically - as the Springboks, reigning world champions, loomed large.
As if to provide a perfect backdrop on the final weekend of an excruciating tour, the heavens opened above Newlands to such an extent it made the Indian monsoon season look like an April shower.
The game, unquestionably, should have been called off, but it bizarrely went ahead and Perry found himself subjected to an inevitable kicking bombardment from South African scrum-half Joost van der Westhuizen.
But Perry stood firm in the face of adversity, taking every high ball that came his way at what seemed a rate of about one every 23.6 seconds.
It was an astonishing performance that showcased everything you needed to know about him - selfless, dedicated, richly-talented and a supreme team man.