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Let’s salute Northampton winning for all the right reasons

Northampton players celebrate - Let's salute Northampton winning for all the right reasons
Northampton have been the best side this season and their players deserved to celebrate the title on Sunday in front of their fans - Getty Images/David Rogers

Very few people now involved with the newly installed Gallagher Premiership Champions, Northampton, will remember what the club was like in the 1980s. They certainly won’t recall that sheep used to graze on the pitch in summer and from November to March the surface was a quagmire that meant players slogged around in mud for months. Those aren’t just my recollections, they come from the former England and Lions prop – and Saints legend – David ‘Piggy’ Powell.

Powell witnessed the club’s decline and was instrumental in their gradual rebuilding of the 1990s, and their earliest days of the professional era. His pride was there for all to see as Saints triumphed at Twickenham. Northampton is not a massive town, and its rugby team still has the feeling of a locals’ club, very much like Gloucester.

Saints have not been extravagant spenders over the years and their triumph is testament to a well-run organisation that has created a successful and productive youth policy. It is also one of the few clubs that is close to breaking even in terms of their annual profits and losses.

Although the final did not turn out to be one of pure attacking quality, it was still a magnificent battle and Bath deserve huge credit for sustaining their challenge for the 60 minutes they were down to 14 players, after Beno Obano, their prop, was correctly sent off for a high tackle.

What has delighted, and united, Saints’ fans and neutrals this season is their appreciation of Northampton’s attacking prowess. Not only did they lead the table for most of the season, and finished top, they did so in a manner that was immensely watchable. The genesis of this style can be traced back to the Kiwi, Chris Boyd, whose contribution to this success should not go undocumented. Phil Dowson, the director of rugby, and Sam Vesty have managed to build on Boyd’s work, going about their business in an understated but effective manner.

As attack coach, Vesty is overseeing the emergence of several young backs who will surely feature on England’s forthcoming tour of Japan and New Zealand. You cannot be certain which players will eventually become regular England players but there is every chance with Tommy Freeman and Ollie Sleightholme. If those players need to know about the vagaries of selection, they need only ask their colleague, George Furbank.

Ollie Sleightholme
Ollie Sleightholme, who scored on Saturday, has impressed this season and could well become an England regular - PA/David Davies

Furbank is an interesting character. He had an unremarkable start to his England career under Eddie Jones and eventually fell out of favour behind Leicester’s Freddie Steward. Under a different head coach, Steve Borthwick, he has fought himself back into starting contention for the No 15 shirt. On Saturday Furbank was at the heart of much that Northampton did well. He is developing an ability to run instinctive support lines that do not get picked up by defenders, much in the manner of former Saints favourite, Chris Ashton. Whilst Furbank is not as big as Steward, this makes him more dangerous and a variable which tests defences regularly.

Saints caught the Bath defence too narrow on several occasions before the Obano sending off and their first two tries were scored whilst the numbers were equal. If anything, the Obano red card galvanised Bath more than Northampton and players like Sam Underhill turned in supreme and supremely brave performances, even though they were ultimately in vain.

George Furbank
George Furbank was at the heart of a lot of what Northampton did well on Saturday and throughout the season - Getty Images/Bob Bradford

Ironically, it was probably the defensive work of Northampton that was responsible for their victory. That aspect of their game has been far better for most of this season and credit for that should be given to the former Rugby League professional, Lee Radford. It was the same in the final. When Bath looked like fashioning the unlikeliest of wins, Saints managed to keep their discipline, kept their line intact and kept their lead.

Observers have a natural tendency to focus on what is done by attackers, but it was Saints’ scrambling defence that was ultimately responsible for sealing their win. This was particularly so when Bath managed to gain a momentum swing late in the game and were pressing for an unlikely win with 14 men.

Few players get to bow out in exactly the way they want but three Northampton stalwarts were granted that wish. Alex Waller, Courtney Lawes and Lewis Ludlum could not have wished for much more and the ‘family’ feel of the club could not have been more evident at Twickenham. For this and for all the reasons set out earlier, Northampton’s win is one that should be saluted as welcome and for the right reasons. Whether they can accommodate the loss of such players remains to be seen, but the signs are hopeful and for now they deserve to bask in their glory.

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