Saracens 29 Northampton Saints 20: Tom Vickers' review and player ratings
Rarely has a Saints team been able to take such pride in defeat as they did at Allianz Park on Saturday evening.
Jim Mallinder’s men expect to win, wherever they go, meaning expectations are typically high when they make their way onto the battlefield.
But on this occasion, they were huge underdogs, perhaps more so than they’ve ever been during Mallinder’s near nine-year tenure at the club.
Why? Because with an injury list that lurched into double figures and an opposition who had won 20 of their 25 games in all competitions, they were facing a gargantuan task.
There was no Dylan Hartley, no Kieran Brookes, no Tom Wood, no George North to help carry the load.
Five back row forwards were missing and Saints were relying on a pack containing only one player over the age of 27.
But in the end, it was to be the back row who led the charge, the young guns who really fired.
Ben Nutley, who is just 24, and Teimana Harrison, who is a year younger, carried the fight to Saracens.
They insisted they would not be intimidated and they refused to relent during a first half that saw Saints create an abundance of opportunities.
Saracens were shell-shocked, lucky to go in at half-time just 10-6 down as Mallinder’s men should have had at least another two penalties and a try to show for their efforts.
Saints were furthered hampered by injuries during the second half as the impressive Ben Foden and the indefatigable Nutley were forced off at various stages.
But Saints, backed by their vociferous set of supporters, still kept fighting until the dam eventually burst thanks to a trademark Chris Ashton ‘Ash Splash’.
It was a dagger to the heart of a set of players who had given everything for the shirt.
They had taken their underdog tag and run with it, showing real bite, especially during that stunning first 40 minutes.
And although Saints were disapppointed they couldn’t finish the job, few were complaining about the performance they put in.
When you get to this stage of the season, you are desperate for a fully-fit squad.
You need all of your international stars available, all of their experience at your disposal to get you over the line in the biggest games.
But if this season has taught us anything, it is that Saints have a group of players in reserve who are always ready to step up.
In fact, if Saints lose to Leicester on Saturday, bringing the hunt for the Premiership title to a premature end, it will be a campaign remembered for those men who broke through.
It will be remembered for the emergence of Harrison, who has used injuries to the likes of Calum Clark and Tom Wood to realise his potential.
It will be remembered for how Haywood has carried that No.2 shirt on his back with such fire and desire.
It will be remembered for how Hill used injuries to Kieran Brookes to quickly rise to prominence and win a first England cap.
It will be remembered for those moments of salvation from Harry Mallinder, who has taken to top-level rugby like a duck to water.
Saints would, of course, dearly love to have trophies to add to all of these positives.
They would want to go to Lyon to contest the Champions Cup final and they would expect to make the Premiership top four for a seventh successive season.
But if they don’t, they can use the summer to reflect and rebuild, knowing they have a group of superb fledgling stars that will provide a platform going forward.
The Academy continues to churn out talented player after talented player.
And not only do those young men have the quality, but they have the character to go with it.
The ones who played at Saracens on Saturday will take huge confidence from their showing.
So while Saints may not be out of Europe, they shouldn’t be down.
And if they can beat Leicester on Saturday and get some of their walking wounded back in action, who is to say they can’t go on and get that win at Allianz Park in the play-offs.
How they rated...
Was playing like the Foden of old before he was forced off with a groin injury. The absence of the captain-for-the-day didn’t help Saints’ cause at all... 8
Showed good awareness to get up in support of Harrison to score Saints’ try and the Samoan wing did little wrong... 7
A strong showing from the centre, who put his body on the line and tried to force Saracens into mistakes with some rush tactics... 7
Saints were delighted to have this man back in action and his power was key during the fantastic first-half display... 7
Missed the chance to score in the corner as the ball slipped out of his grasp, but he did little else wrong and one scything run was a joy to behold... 7
Missed a couple of first-half kicks that he would expect to make and couldn’t quite manage the game as he’d have liked during the second period... 6
Showed his strength at the breakdown and was so snappy early on as he set the tone for Saints, but his kicking game went astray during the second period... 7
Plenty of commitment from the prop, who put in another big shift before being replaced by Campese Ma’afu... 7
A few lineouts went astray during the first period, but that owed much to Saracens’ set piece ability and the hooker was superb for a long spell, putting himself about... 8
Relished the big occasion and was another youngster who refused to be daunted by a big team on the big stage... 7
Such a steady presence in the Saints second row. Others will get the headlines, but he never lets his team down... 7
Like Craig, he kept Saints ticking over during the first period and one superb offload helped to set up Pisi’s score... 7
Part of an outstanding back row effort, the lock showed he is still one of the best around with a big display, capped by a consolation score... 8
You wouldn’t have known he was making his first first-team appearance of the season. The flanker was everywhere, winning turnovers, making breaks and generally excelling... 9
TEIMANA HARRISON - CHRON STAR MAN
The New Zealand-born star racked up 13 carries and 14 tackles in one of the best individual displays of Saints’ season so far. Exceptional fighting spirit... 9
Replacements (who played more than 20 minutes)
HARRY MALLINDER (for Foden 47)
Came on at a really difficult time as Saracens were starting to build up a head of steam, forcing Saints’ backs to defend rather than attack... 6