Northampton Saints 21 Connacht 15: Tom Vickers' review and player ratings

Saints celebrated a gritty success against Connacht on Saturday (pictures: Kirsty Edmonds)
Saints celebrated a gritty success against Connacht on Saturday (pictures: Kirsty Edmonds)
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Several trends continued for Saints against Connacht on Saturday - but they managed to buck a bad one.

Losing late on in big matches had become a horrible habit for Jim Mallinder's men in the final few months of the Aviva Premiership season.

Saints had come so close to vital victories against Bath, Leicester, Wasps and Saracens before being undone in agonising fashion in the final few moments of those matches.

But this time, Saints found a way to squeeze home.

With Connacht knocking loudly on the door in the final few minutes, Mallinder's men shut it in the faces of the Irish side.

With flanker Jamie Gibson sin-binned with two minutes to go, the Franklin's Gardens faithful could be forgiven for fearing the worst.

A converted try would have been enough for Connacht to claim a memorable win in Northampton.

It would have been just their second success on English soil since Warren Gatland's team won 20-15 at Saints in 1997.

And it would have been a perfect send-off for Saints legend Pat Lam, who is leaving Connacht to join Bristol this summer.

But Connacht's attacking desperation was met with equal defensive desire from Saints.

With Gibson off, hooker Mike Haywood came on to boost the numbers up front and impressive full-back Ahsee Tuala was sacrificed.

It was a shrewd move from the Saints coaches as their side defended a Connacht lineout drive and then shuffled across the pitch to plug any gaps.

Louis Picamoles made a huge hit to drive the men in navy and grey back and Courtney Lawes finished the job with a trademark tackle.

The Lions lock came flying out to put a Connacht player on the ground, with the force of the impact helping Saints to win a scrum that brought an end to the match.

There was a roar of relief as the home fans celebrated a gritty win that ensured their side still have a chance to play Champions Cup rugby next season.

If Saints can win at home to Challenge Cup winners Stade Français on Friday night, top-level European rugby will be theirs.

But Mallinder and his men know they will have to improve if they are to slay the French giants at the Gardens.

Saints will need to be slick and strong against a side containing the likes of Sergio Parisse, Will Genia and Jules Plisson.

It will certainly not be an easy task, but if they can get it done, there will be some cheer at the end of a difficult campaign.

They will need the same composure they showed late on against Connacht and key men will be asked to stand up again.

On Saturday, the form of Tuala, Lawes and Nic Groom were among the highlights.

Those players were consistently good in the final few months of the league season, and they just get better and better.

Saints managed to improve in the scrum, dominating Connacht in that area, providing promise for a huge clash with a Stade side whose forward push can be monstrous.

Certainly, there were good signs for Saints.

Now they have one more match to make sure promise is turned into something more palpable.

How they rated...
AHSEE TUALA

The Samoan full-back has been a star for Saints in recent times and he was at it again here, playing a key role in both tries... 8

BEN FODEN
The experienced campaigner showed plenty of fire and desire, constantly finding gaps in the Connacht line and playing a big part in Harry Mallinder's try... 8

NAFI TUITAVAKE
The Tongan centre made some good tackles and also looked lively when on the front foot, with his ability to dance past defenders in evidence here... 7

LUTHER BURRELL
A shame for the centre, who was involved in a huge collision and had to limp off just 22 minutes into the match... 6

GEORGE NORTH
Was in the thick of the action early on, taking a bloody nose for his troubles as he got stuck into Connacht... 7

HARRY MALLINDER
Showed good maturity at fly-half, kicking well from the tee, scoring a try and also controlling the game well... 8

NIC GROOM
The scrum-half has been in fine form in recent weeks and he was lively again here, displaying good spacial awareness to score a key try... 8

ALEX WALLER
Didn't find favour with the referee in the early stages of the game, but sorted that out as the match went on and put in plenty of effort... 6

DYLAN HARTLEY
Captained the side with regular skipper Tom Wood on the bench and his experience and know-how was important for Saints... 7

KIERAN BROOKES
Had a decent day in the scrum and around the park as he looked to enjoy this game against an enthusiastic Connacht side... 7

COURTNEY LAWES - CHRON STAR MAN
What more can you say about this man? He continues to drive Saints on and his late match-winning tackle just saw him edge out Tuala for the star man award... 8

CHRISTIAN DAY
The lock put in a big display, carrying the fight to Connacht and steering his side around the field well... 7

JAMIE GIBSON
Worked as hard as ever, but didn't find favour with the referee late on, being sin-binned in what could have been a costly moment for Saints... 6

TEIMANA HARRISON
Another good shift from the flanker, who displayed good aggression and carried as hard as ever... 7

LOUIS PICAMOLES
Didn't dominate this game as he has many others this season, but he still made more carries than any other Saints player... 7

Replacements (who played more than 20 minutes)
RORY HUTCHINSON (for Burrell 22)

A stylish showing from the young centre, whose passing was crisp and whose clever kicking put Connacht on the back foot on one important occasion... 7

TOM WOOD (for Harrison 57)
The club captain shrugged off recent injury issues to come on and play an important role late on for Saints, standing tall against Connacht late on... 6

Nafi Tuitavake helped to get his team on the front foot

Nafi Tuitavake helped to get his team on the front foot

Harry Mallinder racked up 16 points from fly-half

Harry Mallinder racked up 16 points from fly-half

Courtney Lawes played a key role

Courtney Lawes played a key role

Nic Groom scored what proved to be the winning try

Nic Groom scored what proved to be the winning try