Tuala not fazed by Saints' tough run-in
At the conclusion of Saturday's defeat to Leicester Tigers, it was difficult not to feel that it was one that got away for Saints.
A real chance to end their barren run against Tigers, who have now won the past seven east midlands derbies.
A real chance to leapfrog their rivals and put pressure on the top four, building into an ultra-tough final four games.
And a real chance to build on the superb success at Sale Sharks earlier in the month.
But it wasn’t to be for Jim Mallinder’s men.
And they must now go back to the drawing board in pursuit of points against Wasps, Saracens, Exeter Chiefs and Harlequins.
The run-in is not a kind one, and a win against Leicester would have been so valuable.
However, following the defeat, which came despite Saints leading for long periods, the players in the home dressing room refused to be bowed by the experience.
Perhaps that impression came simply because they sent out one of the cheeriest members of the squad, Ahsee Tuala.
But if his ability to sidestep the difficult run-in ahead is anything to go by, Saints will not be as fazed as their fanbase by the matches that are on the horizon in April and May.
“We’ve got four tough games left and we just need to take it a game at a time so we can stay in the top six really,” said Tuala, refusing to feel the heat.
“We’ve got some tough games but we’ve got to take it one game at a time and look to get as many points as we can to finish in the top six.”
They were stock answers, but it was easy to see why Tuala was upbeat after his personal performance impressed plenty of onlookers.
The Samoan full-back was sparky throughout and showed good awareness to track Louis Picamoles, who offloaded to him for Saints’ second try.
“It’s been good coming back after the break,” Tuala said.
“We played well in the last couple of weeks when the boys were on international duty and selection last week was tough for the coaches so it’s a good thing in a way.
“It keeps all the boys on their toes.”
Tuala kept his place at full-back, despite the return of George North from Six Nations duty.
Saints opted to switch Ben Foden from 11 to 14 to make room for North, rather than dropping Tuala and putting Foden at full-back.
And Tuala said: “I feel with the depth we’ve got with the likes of Ken Pisi as well, there’s good competition.
“We’ve got James Wilson and Juan Pablo (Estelles), who weren’t in the squad against Leicester, as well so there’s good depth.”
But despite there being some positives from the performance and the amount of competition in the squad, there was no doubt the overriding derby-day emotion was one of frustration.
Saints were five points up late on and had the chance to extend that advantage to eight, with Stephen Myler lining up a penalty.
But, unusually, Myler missed and Tigers came roaring back, despite being down to 14 men after Mike Williams’ yellow card.
A Lachlan McCaffrey try and some ice-cool kicking from replacement fly-half Owen Wiliams, who was named man of the match, won the day for the men from Welford Road.
And Tuala said: “The boys are disappointed with the result.
“These local derbies mean a lot to both teams and where we’re sitting on the table, it meant a lot.
“We’re disappointed with the result because we thought we played some good rugby out there.
“Leicester were smarter in the scrums and at slowing the game down, getting penalties off the scrum, so credit to them for doing that and we couldn’t get any tempo into the game during that time.”