WELL IN THE end Steve McQueen was forced to leave his German motorbike in the car park at Franklin’s Gardens as Leeds just failed to pull off the Aviva Premiership Great Escape, writes Rugby World editor, Paul Morgan.
Eleven points off 11th place in March, Leeds have made a storming run to the line, but they finally came up one precious point short of pushing Newcastle into last place and almost certain relegation to the RFU Championship.
I say almost certain because, of course, Leeds’ relegation won’t be confirmed until the evening of Wednesday 18 May when Worcester and Cornish Pirates meet in the second leg of the Championship play-offs.
A win for Worcester sends Leeds down but if the Pirates prevail Leeds will stay up as the Pirates’ Mennaye Field grounds does not meet Premiership regulations.
Leeds head coach Neil Back believes Worcester will prevail after their scare in the semi-final – he might well be right!
Back was his usual dignified self after the game but as he acknowledged his side simply weren’t good enough over a 22-match season.
Northampton were a ludicrous 40-1 on before this game and gamblers would have jumped on the 20-point start they were given, once the teams were announced.
The biggest worry for Northampton was the way so many of their second string performed.
Five of their most influential players – Dylan Hartley, Soane Tonga’uiha, Lee Dickson, Courtney Lawes and Stephen Myler – on the bench as they prepared for the Aviva semi-finals and Heineken Cup final later this month.
But those who took their place failed to live up to Northampton’s recent form. After 19 minutes Leeds led 24-3.
The salary cap means that English clubs are barely able to field two teams, let alone have their third choice able to play in the Premiership.
To be fair to Northampton’s second stringers they were starting to get back on top before the substitutes came on, but for most of the game it was an unacceptable performance from the Saints.
According to Saints Director of Rugby, Jim Mallinder they were given a major dressing down after the game in the dressing room.
The tide turned on the half-hour mark when Phil Dowson, who was throwing up in the dressing room at half-time, dived over the in the corner. And a few minutes later Brian Mujati led a rampant Northampton scrum to a penalty try, after Juan Gomez had been sin-binned at the previous scrum.
There was however an air of inevitability about Northampton’s comeback and once their five horseman of the Apocalypse arrived in the second half the Saints pulled clear, Myler’s hat-trick of penalties in the second half taking them from 24-22 down to win.
When you are at the bottom even a 21-point led isn’t enough.
Leeds were on the back foot for the majority of the second half and only got in Northampton’s 22 once, in the dying moments but by then it was too little too late even though England Sevens player Uche Oduoza tried to bulldoze over from five metres out, but couldn’t run over Lawes and Ashton.
Players of Note:
Northampton – Unfortunately no one put up their hands to break into the 22 for the semis and Heineken Cup final. Brian Mujati, Phil Dowson and Chris Ashton showed their class, which was lucky for the Saints
Hendre Fourie – You can see exactly why Martin Johnson is so keen on Fourie. He has spent most of the season carrying one injury or another so when he spends eight weeks with England over the summer and gets those right he could play in the World Cup. The club – and it is rumoured Sale and Gloucester are after him – that signs him in the next couple of weeks will get a bargain!
Rhys Oakley – He put his body on the line for Leeds today and should be commended for a magnificent effort that saw him knocked unconscious at one point, tackling James Downey. Deserves another crack at Premiership rugby next season!
Northampton (15) 31 Tries: Dowson, penalty, Ashton Cons: Geraghty 2 Pens: Geraghty, Myler 3 Leeds (24) 24 Tries: Fourie, Oakley, Wackett Cons: Jarvis 3 Pens: Jarvis
Northampton: Foden; Ashton, Ansbro, Downey, Diggin; Geraghty, Commins; Waller, Sharman, Mujati; Sorenson, Day; Easter, Dowson (capt), Wilson.
Replacements: Hartley, Tonga’uiha, Mercey, Lawes, Clark, Dickson, Myler, Reihana.
Leeds: Stephenson; Blackett, Fa’afili, Barrow, Wackett; Jarvis, Mathie; MacDonald, Nilsen, Gomez; Browne, Myall (capt); Oakley, Fourie, To’oala.
Replacements: Hardy, Denman, Swainston, Denton, White, Lewis-Pratt, Oduoza.