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FEATURE Why a Northampton Saints title was crucial for the Premiership

Why a Northampton Saints title was crucial for the Premiership
1 week ago

It was the legendary Alabama College football coach Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant who first opined ‘offence sells tickets, but defence wins championships’. Supporters of sports across the globe have been arguing toss ever since. Is it better to arrive at a grand final with the better attacking or defensive statistics?

The debate has even penetrated academia, where research into the previous ten years of play in the NBA found the percentage of defensive steals [turnovers] and [shot] blocks were still the most reliable indicators of a championship-winning team. At the same time, the increased impact of marketing and brand awareness has moved the game towards ever greater emphasis on points scoring.

As Steve Kerr, coach of the all-court, all-conquering Golden State Warriors who won the NBA title in three of the four years between 2015-2018, shedding new points-scoring records like confetti along the way, commented:

“Maybe there has been an overcorrection to what was happening 20 years ago. I played in the finals in 2003 and the final scores were like 72-65. It was ugly.

“I think the league did an amazing job of loosening up the game, of creating more freedom.

“But I think we have just gone a little too far. I think the rules have really been geared towards giving the offensive player the advantage.

“It has become much more difficult to play defence in the NBA now.”

Offence drives business in American sport, and Premiership Rugby has taken the baton and run as if its life depended on it in the 2023-24 season. The average ball-in-play time is well over 38 minutes in the Prem, four minutes more than the Top 14. More action means more tries, there are more of them scored in England than in France, on average 3.5 compared to 2.8 per game.

Yet the Premiership still lags well behind the Top 14 in the investment it attracts. Canal+ recently reacquired the rights to televise French professional rugby up until the end of 2031-32 season, worth an estimated €129m per season to the Top 14, a 13.3% rise on the previous deal. For every Euro earned from TV revenue by a Gallagher Premiership club, its Top 14 equivalent will be receiving €2.50.

When 14-man Bath led Northampton Saints by three points entering the closing stages of the final, the marketing strategists at Premiership Rugby would have been dropping to their knees and wringing their hands in prayer to the Above. Their faith in the sporting model across the pond was being sorely tested.

Playing for the most part without the ball, and without their full complement of 15 players for an hour, Bath were winning all the battles which mattered. On the day, West Country pluck and defensive diligence probably deserved a better reward.

It was an eerie reprise of so many high-profile finals in recent times: the Springboks at the last two World Cups, La Rochelle versus Leinster in two of the last three Champions Cup finals. Hell, even those connoisseurs of attacking elegance, Toulouse, overcame the Dublin giants with a paltry one-third ration of the ball in this year’s showpiece. On so many big occasions, defensive resilience on the day trumps attacking cohesion over the season.

Ex-England World Cup winner turned TNT Sports pundit Ben Kay was getting positively misty-eyed with nostalgia for a bygone era, both before and after the event. Before:

“There are huge similarities between Saracens [before they became good], and Bath over the last few seasons. [Both] have had a big-money backer that hasn’t had the return on his investment that you would have expected.

“Then suddenly, you put a South African coach [Johann van Graan, or Brendan Venter for Saracens] in there, who binds everything together and tries to make more of a family feel to the club and it very quickly starts to find success.

“I could see Bath in particular, going on from here. I make Northampton favourites, but I could see Bath – even if they lost this weekend – learning from that and kicking on for a number of years. It’s [more] difficult for Northampton because they’re losing such key players.”

Afterwards, Kay was already doubling down on his prediction.

The duel between Ben Spencer and Alex Mitchell encapsulated the clash of styles in the Premiership final (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

“Despite losing today, I think Bath are right back at the top for the next few years and could become the team that dominates the Premiership. Sometimes you have to go to a final, and lose one, to realise what it’s all about. This team will stay here at the top.”

If the history of Bath and Leicester, John Hall versus Dean Richards and even Ben Kay’s very personal contest against Danny Grewcock are in the background, there is also a definite, if unspoken, sense defence [as well as forward play] wins championships. Just ask South Africa, and South African coaches such as Van Graan and Venter.

On a sunny Saturday afternoon at Twickenham, Bath did block most of the Saints’ attacking shots and they did make most of the steals at the breakdown. The game was played out the South African way, even in Beno Obano’s absence. Ball-in-play time was six minutes below the Premiership average at 32 minutes, 11 of Saints’ 19 set-piece launches ended in turnover, and the Midlanders only managed to string more than five phases together twice in the match. Those figures alone should have been enough to win Bath the silverware.

One of the most fascinating individual contests promised to be the battle between the two scrum-halves, England incumbent Alex Mitchell for Saints, and Bath’s Ben Spencer, who is also likely to feature on England’s visit to New Zealand in less than a month’s time. It distilled the essence of each side’s preparation for the final in a nutshell.

As Harlequins’ own ‘Yoda’ number nine Danny Care pointed out prophetically before the game:

“Ben Spencer is Bath’s captain but also the way he defends, he stands behind the ruck like he is ready to slow the [number] nine down.

“There is an England tour for him to try and get on as well, this is a huge game for him personally, and for the club.

“Somehow you have got to get a hold of Alex Mitchell and try and slow him down.”

Mitchell is the key cog in the Northampton’s tempo-building, fast-ruck programme on attack, so Bath began by using Spencer as a defensive ‘spy’ on his opposite number, shooting out from the boot of the ruck.

 

 

Spencer’s role is to act as an aggressive operator looking for espionage, to spoil or sabotage the link from the base. When he was unavailable to do the job, Finn Russell filled in for him instead.

 

By way of contrast, Spencer was under no pressure at all from his Northampton rival, and that allowed him all the time in the world to deploy Bath’s most effective attacking strategy on the day, the cross-kick to the wing.

 

 

Mitchell’s first instinct is to fan out laterally rather than attack straight upfield, so Spencer is already sitting in his armchair surveying the options under no pressure. In the second clip, Mitchell is well away from the scene of the action and the Bath half-back again has the freedom of the paddock to make his choice of play.

It was no coincidence Northampton’s attacking successes in the game materialised at the moments Spencer was unable to perform his designated role as harpy-in-chief.

 

 

Both of these second-phase strikes were set up by a punishing carry from Saints’ flankerTom Pearson deep into the Bath midfield, and in both cases Mitchell is blissfully unmolested at the base of the initial ruck, with his opposite number still stranded in the tram-lines from the lineout.

In the first clip, Mitchell runs the fake wrap to the blind-side around Courtney Lawes while Alex Waller adroitly walls off Obano’s replacement Juan Schoeman to lever open a hole for George Furbank.,

In the second, he engages the attention of the first three Bath forwards around the ruck before whipping the ball across to Fin Smith and the Saints’ outside backs on the left.

Spencer also went AWOL, through no fault of his own, for the decisive try of the game.

 

Russell is again doing his best Spencer impersonation at the first ruck, and that in turn pulls his centres further in towards the breakdown than they need to be to defend George Hendy on the wide right. Spencer is only just running back into shot when Mitchell joyfully accepts an inside pass from the galloping redhead to convert the winning try.

The story of Bath’s resurgence at the top of the English game may be a romantic tale to warm the tender hearts of all those who knew the club at the height of the late amateur and early professional eras, but the odds are the marketing strategists at Premiership Rugby would have preferred a Northampton title.

The Saints are the main standard-bearers for the attacking intent in the English game right now, having reached the last four in the Champions Cup and added the Premiership to their trophy cabinet. Hopefully that will translate to extra value in the next round of broadcasting negotiations, where there is huge ground to make up on the Top 14.

Mitchell and Spencer may very well find they are international team-mates this summer, and it will be up to Steve Borthwick to rediscover the balance between attack and defence. Defence may still win championships, but England badly need to sell tickets domestically and nationally. It is the American way, and that means it is the righteous route to sporting success.

Comments

37 Comments
H
Harry 9 days ago

Hi, Nick. I found that match utterly entertaining for so many reasons. I love watching a team down a man working out how to shape the contest to their liking. I love a player like Lawes. The hits just kept coming and with 20 minutes to go and 18-18, I think, it was poised like pudding on a deck. (I made that up, but was thinking Patrick O’Brien might have written it). Have you seen videos of Trokkie Augustus playing a drunken drum in the aftermath and chanting Alex Mitchell’s name? It’s classic.

F
Francisco 9 days ago

Great game, Nick...! Unbelievable. I couldn't watch it live as I was focused on my team's game in Argentina. Unbelievable BIP in the Premiership (38 min. average) compared to 31 in our regional tournament. Certainly: for a hard-working team, the more playing time, the more opportunities available.

M
Mitch 11 days ago

Once Obano was sent off, anticipated that this final to be a good advertisement for the 20 minute red card based on Northampton's attacking prowess, believing they'd run up a cricket score. Saints weren’t as attacking as I thought they’d be with thema advantage and Bath made this match a scrap that would remain tight to the bitter end.

J
Jon 11 days ago

I said this in the World Cup, defending is simply the easier component to raise your game in. Extra effort in offence often causes problems. You picked GSW but of course we were all following OKC and from memory I felt coordinating all that attack wasn’t the easiest whilst Durant was there? Adding Durant seemed to take GSW to another on the other hand. Basketball is drastically different though, as with that effort component, rhythm plays so much more into a 7 game series.

Good on Saints for their success, but you’re right, it was needed. There’s been a big drive for this sort of rugby right, the grounds are so much better now (how about that day rugby?), and they brought over Chris Boyd, who must surely have put a lot of things mindsets in place. To have fallen over like it looked they were doing wouldn’t have been encouraging. End the end, it showed trying to play football is the way!

D
Derek Murray 12 days ago

Terrific piece highlighting the pros and cons of the two very good 9’s.

I was tearing my hair out at Mitchell’s decision to tap and go late on when down by 3. They hadn’t scored a point for 30 minutes and he passed up the chance to tie it up.

Also, it looks like Pearson is a long way down Borthwick’s backrow pecking order but I’d have him ahead of both Currys if he’s set on Earl and Underhill as he needs the extra size and lineout skill.

T
Timmyboy 12 days ago

The fact saints had 13 academy graduates at Twickenham was reason enough, England benefits when clubs like saints become successful. Buying a trophy whilst nothing wrong with it, doesn’t hit the same.

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Ed the Duck 12 days ago

So Saints are a great attack team, no doubt at all. They also have a pretty cohesive defence and I’d say that makes them probably the most balanced team in the league atm. In terms of outright attack though, quins are streets ahead and Bristol aren’t that far behind them once more. You would need to go a long way to find a better attack performance than quins in Bordeaux this year, just outstanding!

You are probably correct that the marketing guys wanted a Saints win, but then again everyone loves a great comeback and Bath have been out in the cold for a very long time! And the Bath defence with 14 men was heroic at times.

As for stats, the urc leaves both leagues standing with over 6 tries per game…

Ps nice quote from BK and I reckon he’s spot on with his assessment!

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