A week ago Northampton Saints returned to Monday training following a fourth hammering this season by Saracens. This week they have the satisfaction of completing the double over their fiercest rivals Leicester as they won 27-21 at Welford Road. This may also potentially derail the Tigers’ play-off bid. Before the match, there was only one winner on paper. But looking at the trends of this season, a Northampton win at Leicester was no surprise.
Northampton the masters of upsetting the odds
Ironically it is the Leicester Tigers who really should have seen this result coming, as Northampton start and end their season with strongly symmetrical results. The Saints started the season with a 55-24 loss to Saracens at Twickenham where they conceded seven first-half tries. Not the ideal preparation for the East Midlands derby in round two then. On the contrary, as Northampton came out a different team to claim a comfortable and convincing 24-11 win.
So when Saracens ran in their ninth try at Franklin’s Gardens to complete a 63-13 win, perhaps Leicester should have been worried. Of the four matches against Saracens this season, this was the worst result of the lot. The second half was lost 48-0, a new record for home tries conceded was set and fans were out the ground long before the end of the match.
Nor is this the first season in which Northampton have defied the odds. In the 2013/14 Champions Cup they defeated Leinster 18-9 in Dublin just a week after being demolished 40-7 by the Irish province at home. Six members of that matchday squad were in Saturday’s 23 and you have to wonder if they recalled this experience to help rouse their teammates. Stalwart Stephen Myler started at fly-half in both games, and reflected candidly about the Saints’ mindset leading into this game:
"The level of our performance has not been questioned by anyone more than ourselves."
Stephen Myler expressed his pride in the Saints' responce after last week, as Jamie Gibson scoops the man of the match award 👏 pic.twitter.com/TCcaffueoY
— Rugby on BT Sport (@btsportrugby) April 14, 2018
Big defeats prompt Big Responses
However it is not just the Northampton Saints who have been defying the odds this season. Indeed their victims Leicester Tigers were languishing in ninth place around Christmas yet are still right in the mix for the play-offs. A bonus point win at Saracens in February was the catalyst for the Tigers after a couple of months of disappointing results.
Gloucester under new coach Johan Ackermann had some early season troubles and a 57-10 thumping at Sale seemed to suggest it would be a long road to improvement. But after this the Cherry and Whites stormed to second place at Christmas, after beating the likes of Saracens and Bath. They have wobbled a bit since then and eventually lost their unbeaten home record to Newcastle in March. A 46-10 drubbing at Exeter seems to have stirred the desire and sparked a 37-9 win over Harlequins, where they grabbed a precious try bonus point in the final play of the game.
Other play-off contenders Newcastle Falcons had a similar awakening, thanks to rivals Gloucester. A 29-7 home defeat in November set the Falcons off on a fantastic run of form that sees them in fourth place and in the semi finals of the Challenge Cup, and with the best away record in the league.
This trend is not just limited to the English Premiership either. The Scarlets have defied the odds and reached the semi-finals of the Champions Cup despite losing their first two pool matches; normally a terminal fate in that competition. Losing at home to Bath seemed to have torpedoed the Pro14 champion’s European ambitions, but they came back to beat Toulon and Bath to advance to the knockout stage for the first time in ten years.
Unpredictability of the Aviva Premiership
All of these examples just go to show how predictable the Aviva Premiership, and the game of rugby in general can be. Those who win one week are not certain to win the next. We can look the French Top14 for more evidence, where Stade Français can one week defeat champions Clermont 50-13 then lose 44-3 the next week.
This raises again the importance of coaching and how it is possible to enact such drastic performance changes in a short period of time. Three Premiership Head Coaches/Directors of Rugby have lost their jobs (including Jim Mallinder at Northampton) because their Boards believed these turnarounds would not come. But the success of longstanding coaches like Mark McCall, Dean Richards and Steve Diamond would suggest patience is needed.
Whilst Northampton will be delighted at their derby day win, their season is a total write-off. Same goes for Harlequins and realistically Bath too. For the opponents facing any of these teams in the final two matches, the warning signs are there. One poor game does not make a poor side. Fortunately, this makes for a very exciting league where every game counts.
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