The term ‘must-win game’ is overused in modern sporting parlance but in terms of the ambitions of the Saints this season the game at Exeter certainly fell into that category.
No-one has taken anything better than a losing bonus point from Sandy Park this season and Saints’ victory was huge, and one very much needed to maintain pressure on the mission make the top four by May.
There is much to admire about Exeter, they play with real verve and energy and are exciting to watch.
It’s no wonder they are up there with the teams with the best try-scoring records.
I must admit that after the opening salvos on Saturday I was a little concerned as Saints were off the pace, Exeter were dominating pretty much every department but it was pleasing to see Saints’ defence line hold and weather that initial onslaught.
It took a moment of magic from the rapidly returning to form Ben Foden to shift that momentum and he has timed his return perfectly to start knocking very loudly back on the England selectors’ door.
That will be a tough call for Stuart Lancaster as both Mike Brown and Alex Goode are also playing well; it’s not a bad position to be in.
Despite Exeter’s desire to move the ball around and play a fast and wide game they do need to take a more pragmatic approach on occasions.
While it is great to watch a team attack from all parts of the pitch and switch the ball from flank to flank – certainly a tactic to try to expose Saints who do defend rather narrowly – they need to take the heat out of that sometimes and play the percentages.
It is a ‘work on’ for them as a squad and if they are able to gel that together with the fast and wide game they will become more of a threat than they already are.
There were several comments from the Saints players in the aftermath of the win about how the criticism of their recent performances has spurred them on to ram it down the throats of the media making those headlines.
There are a few points I would like to make on that, firstly it seems to have galvanised them together somewhat, particularly after reading some comments after the game about this new mantra they have: ‘why not us?’
That for me is the most important point, why not you?
You have showed much potential over the past few years and come so close you ought to have won one of the big trophies, that is the expectation that you as players and coached have created.
In many respects I believe that Saints fans and the board have generally been very patient in waiting for that success, other clubs’ fans and supporters might not have been so, but it’s the performances on the pitch that have whet the appetite of Saints fans who are so hungry for the squad to make that final leap.
But it is not a divine right, you have to earn it, you have to continually improve and develop, and that for me is what the sticking point has been.
That improvement has halted or at best slowed and other teams have leapt forwards, however there is still a huge opportunity this season, so I think most dedicated fans agree, why not you?
That has been the frustration in reality, that lack of consistency.
I have always believed this is a squad capable of more, hence the fact that on occasion I have asked some tough questions.
This ‘why not us’ mantra could prove to be a very powerful tool, as there is nothing more dangerous than a group of talented rugby players who pull together with a common goal and put their differences, moans and whinges aside.
We did it in 2000 and won the Heineken Cup, and this current crop of players is a better squad than we were.
We have talked of crossroads already this season but ultimately the squad have to buy into it and believe they are capable.
Perhaps this latest critical away win will prove to be the seminal moment for what I have always believed to be a talented group of men.
Common sense prevails as Flood is cleared
At last common sense has prevailed with the news that Toby Flood has escaped a ban for his so-called dangerous tackle on Andy Goode last weekend.
In my opinion there was nothing at all wrong with Flood’s tackle and had he been banned it would have been ridiculous.
Many have wondered whether, after Owen Farrell’s display against New Zealand and the rapid progress of Gloucester’s Freddie Burns, Flood has a future in the England squad.
I believe he does.
Although he has probably dropped down that pecking order somewhat, I have always thought Flood to be a quality player who plays flat on the gain line which is a real threat.
Looking back at Flood’s tackle, Saints fans will be drawing comparisons with GJ van Velze’s tackle against Exeter earlier in the season and wondering why he received a four-week ban for a similar offence?
There are two points to make on that: I do think van Velze’s tackle did look a little worse which didn’t help, and also the most important point, there is a distinct lack of consistency in the handing out of bans for such offences that goes all the way back to Sam Warburton tackle against France in the World Cup semi-final.
For me the law needs to be looked at.
We have to protect players, but at the same we must not sanitise the game too much and turn it into a farcical show where players are frightened to make big hits in defence through the fear of getting a ban.
I am delighted to hear that the UK Border Agency has also seen common sense this week with the case of Hendrie Fourie.
Injured on international duty after giving so much to this country for more than eight years, it would have been madness to send him home. He clearly wants to make further contributions to his adopted country and it is a relief that it looks like he will be allowed to do so.