Northampton into first Challenge Cup final

A drop goal five minutes from time earned Northampton a 16-13 win over Saracens and the club’s first appearance in the European Challenge Cup final.


The scores were level at 13-13 in a tensely-fought semi-final on Friday when Stephen Myler struck to earn Saints a final place against Worcester or French side Bourgoin who meet on Saturday Northampton had opened up a 13-3 half-time lead with a try from skipper Bruce Reihana and two penalties and a conversion from Myler.


But Saracens hit back in the second half to draw level with winger Rod Penney going over and Glen Jackson, this season’s Guinness Premiership leading points scorer, adding a penalty and a conversion to his first-half penalty.


The stakes were high with Europe’s second-tier knockout competition providing the last chance for both clubs to qualify for next season’s Heineken Cup.


The early desire boiled over with a scuffle, involving around 10 players from each side, ending with French referee Romain Poite calling out rival captains Steve Borthwick and Reihana to issue a general warning with only 44 seconds on the clock.


England captain Borthwick was involved again 10 minutes later when he intervened to pull Northampton’s England hooker Dylan Hartley away from a grappling match with Penney.


Jackson had kicked Saracens ahead with a fourth-minute penalty form close range but Myler equalised three minutes later.


Former league player Myler kicked Northampton ahead in the 13th minute after their scrum forced the back-pedalling Saracens pack to concede a penalty just inside their own half.


The fast-moving Saints attack, spearheaded by dangermen Reihana and full-back Ben Foden, was causing problems for the visitors.


When the rival packs clashed after the scrum collapsed in the 29th minute the French official despatched both hookers, Hartley and Saracens’ Fabio Ongaro, to the sin bin for 10 minutes.


Replacements Brett Sharman and Matt Cairns were called from the bench as a temporary measure before Northampton won the reset scrum but Saracens turned over possession to clear their lines after surviving a lengthy spell of pressure.


The relief was short-lived as Saints came again with heavyweight Tongan prop Soane Tonga’uiha’s barnstorming run taking him to within a couple of yards of the try line.


Saracens, continuing to resist, repelled three forward drives before Northampton moved the ball wide with right wing Paul Diggin and centre Jon Clarke combining before Clarke’s long pass sent the unmarked Reihana over in the left corner in the 29th minute, with Myler converting from out wide.


Jackson’s second penalty reduced the deficit to seven points in the 51st minute after the Saracens pack dominated their counterparts at the breakdown, forcing them to offend.


Saracens introduced former Great Britain rugby league captain Andy Farrell, playing the final match of his illustrious dual-code career before heading into retirement, and they proved much more of a threat in the second half.


The Saints brought on 37-year-old former Scotland prop Tom Smith in the 69th minute for the final time at Franklin’s Gardens before he retires -but he could still be wheeled out one more time for the final.


The home side’s defensive resilience finally cracked in the 73rd minute when Saracens centre Adam Powell sent Penney in down the right and Jackson converted to level the scores.


But, with the match seemingly heading for extra time, Saints came again to set up the chance for Myler to land his coolly-taken winning drop goal from nearly 40 metres out in the 75th minute and they maintained the pressure to deny Saracens any chance to retaliate.


Sapa-AFP Rugbyweek.com

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