Saracens 42 Northampton 38
Wales centre Nick Tompkins provided the spark and Theo McFarland the slam dunk as Saracens survived an attack of the first half jitters to seal a home semi-final with this five-try victory.
The hosts wasted a slew of chances in an error-strewn opening littered with sloppy handling, wayward passing and poor kicking despite dominating territory.
They even failed to score when Saints had lock Alex Coles and captain and flanker Lewis Ludlam in the sin-bin and trailed by a point at the break.
But Tompkins’ try, supplemented by scores for wing Alex Lewington and McFarland’s first added up to a torrent of 19 points in eight minutes.
Rory Hutchinson got one try back a minute after coming on but McFarland, a Samoan rugby and basketball international, landed the bonus point with a try straight from the Harlem Globetrotters playbook. Running in from halfway McFarland, dived for the line to evade Dan Biggar’s tackle and slammed the ball over the try line with his feet off the ground to avoid going into touch. It was a spectacular finish in what is turning into a spectacular season for the dual international.
Coles was carded for obstruction and Ludlam for a dangerous clear out on Owen Farrell which appeared harsh. Farrell had tackled flanker Aaron Hinkley and his head was low as Ludlam delivered a glancing blow as he piled into the breakdown. Saints weathered that storm but they could not weather the one that came after the break that broke the game open for Saracens.
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Northampton are still favourites to claim fourth spot, they have Newcastle left to play, and went away with two points after three tries in the last 10 minutes.
Saracens were seething, and shocked, after last weekend’s 25-13 defeat in Toulon which derailed their supposedly pre-ordained march to the Challenge Cup title but turned on the style in a hot 20 minutes here.
Mark McCall, the Saracens director of rugby, said: “We went to Toulon a bit too pleased with ourselves and they punched us in the face but sometimes you need a punch in the face – that is the nature of a rugby season. We responded to it well.
Northampton needed a bonus point win to nail down their play-off spot and showed they are no back number in this year’s title race by turning 10-9 in front at the break.
It was 6-0 within 12 minutes but dropped balls by Lewington and Alex Goode, who both looked odds on to score before grassing passes, highlighted the bits of detail that were missing in France last week. Saracens were winning the collisions but their handling was letting them down and even Farrell proved he is not immune by dropping one.
Northampton finally got some territory in the second quarter but an astonishing sequence of three tackles in quick succession by Nick Isiekwe helped thwart them. Then when Goode tried to take a quick tap from a mark he was blocked by Coles and the Saints man was yellow-carded with 22 minutes gone. Then Ludlam followed, but Saints held out and they clawed back three points with a Biggar penalty and another home chance when begging when scrum-half Aled Davies failed to put Goode away.
Northampton wing Tommy Freeman showed his hosts how it was done cutting a great line and taking Mikey Haywood’s sumptuous pass to score under the posts before Farrell cut the lead to one point.
Whatever was said at half-time worked when Tompkins started a scoring move with a break from his 10m line and finished it for Saracens first try. A second after Lewington scooted over from Rotemi Segun’s surge and when flanker McFarland made the most of his own charge down of Alex Mitchell’s kick it was 28-10 and Saracens were finally flying. McFarland and Goode’s brilliant finish added the garnish before a quick double from Tom James secured a try bonus point for Saints and Matt Proctor claimed a losing bonus with their fourth try and James added another.
Chris Boyd, Northampton’s director of rugby, said: “We showed some pretty good resilience in the first half and could easily have been 20 points down if we had not hung in there.”
Scoring sequence: 3-0 Farrell pen; 6-0 Farrell pen; 6-3 Biggar pen, 6-8 Freeman try, 6-10 Biggar con; 9-10 Farrell pen (half-time) 14-10 Tompkins try, 16-10 Farrell con; 21-10 Lewington try, 23-10 Farrell con; 28-10 McFarland try; 28-15 Hutchinson try, 28-17 Biggar con; 33-17 McFarland try, 35-17 Farrell con; 40-17 Goode try, 42-17 Farrell con; 42-22 James try, 42-24 Biggar con; 42-29 James try, 42-31 Biggar con; 42-36 Proctor try, 42-38 Biggar con
Saracens: A Goode (D Taylor 69); A Lewington (A Lozowski 50), E Daly, N Tompkins, R Segun; O Farrell (capt), A Davies (I Van Zyl 64); M Vunipola (R Adams-Hale 63), J George (E Lewis 69-79), V Koch (A Clarey 50) , M Itoje, N Isiekwe, T McFarland (J Wray 61), B Earl, B Vunipola (C Hunter-Hill 69)
Northampton: G Furbank; T Freeman, M Proctor, F Dingwall (P Francis 69), C Skosan (R Hutchinson 56); D Biggar, A Mitchell (T James 64); E Iyogun (A Waller 53), M Haywood (S Matavesi 47), E Painter (P Hill 44), A Coles, A Ratuniyarawa (B Nansen 64), C Lawes (A Moon 69), A Hinkley, L Ludlam (capt)
Yellow cards: Northampton: Coles (22), Ludlam (25
Referee: M Carley (RFU)