Optimism to the last as Saints’ fans pull them over the line one last time

The day began as all Saints fans knew it would, with trademark optimism.

Gathering in their hundreds at Franklin’s Gardens, the supporters piled onto coaches, intent on taking Twickenham and knowing, one way or another, this day would be worth treasuring.

Pictures by Linda Dawson NNL-140531-160053006

Pictures by Linda Dawson NNL-140531-160053006

Talking to fans on the coaches, none of them would let themselves think they could go to Rugby HQ yet again and come back with nothing.

If anything that belief seemed to grow stronger as it got nearer 3pm.

Arriving far earlier than the Sarries fans, who were comprehensively outsung inside and out, the Gardens army were making it a one-club carnival.

Sarries supporters would arrive later in fancy dress as well as club shirts and scarves, adding to the colourful spectacle in the shadow of the great arena, but it was truly the black, green and gold that swarmed around the stadium in the sunshine.

Pictures by Linda Dawson NNL-140531-160238006

Pictures by Linda Dawson NNL-140531-160238006

As kick off approached, the belief in Northampton voices seemed to be audible in their throaty roars that willed the game to its beginning.

And by the time the flames shot up around the pitch, soaking everyone in warmth, the cry of Come on You Saints! seemed to pull the lime green hulks out of the tunnel.

Suddenly the game was here, and the first half was all about the boot and a moment of magic from the Saints back line.

For a while it seemed like Owen Farrell was going to kick Sarries out of sight, hitting two penalties on the bounce and lining up a third.

However he missed and Saints, who were kicking wildly and without inspiration, sensed a way into the game.

First Ken Pisi beat three men in a sensational sashaying breakaway that was thwarted through lack of support.

Then the longed-for Saints try.

Sublime hands were the architects and Burrell the artist, guiding the ball to Foden less than 10 metres out. He completed a simple task.

Myler converted and Saints were narrowly on top at half-time 7-6.

The second half was noisy of course, but seemed to fully crack into life when Dylan Hartley came on 15 minutes in, a rousing noise that seemed to breathe new life into the team.

With his appearance, the inspirational hooker had helped the Saints fans find a new level and from then on the second half was pure drama.

Pisi scored in the corner even when the whole ground must have thought a forward pass would rule it out, and it was only going one way.

Then followed that amazing moment when the referee turned back time, ruling out Owen Farrell’s ‘try’, and wiping his five points from the scoreboard. It was greeted with such a joyous cheer, it sounded like it ought to have been the turning point.

But in truth that had come 90 seconds earlier when, with an exuberant boot into the crowd after his touchdown, the England ten kicked himself out the game injured; cruel disaster in the act of celebration.

So what would have been an absolutely crucial score ruled out and the team fulcrum off the field in one swoop. Devastation for Sarries fans but a huge boost for Northampton, not least in the stands.

The Farrell injury then had a third consequence within minutes. Saints, under relentless pressure, finally succumbed to a Bosch try in the corner, but the attempted conversion from Hodgson hit the post when Farrell would surely have scored the winning points.

For a short while thereafter Saints seemed to be on top on the pitch and in the stands. Every breakaway sounded like a try, every kick to touch a victory and it felt like something inevitable was taking place on the hallowed turf.

But with minutes to go, it was still 14-14 and the tension was evident in every roar after every tackle. Tom Wood, captain fantastic yet again, at one point was forced to relieve his defence with a collector’s item grubber kick, one of the best of the match.

Saints took everything Sarries could throw at them in acts of pure will but could not themselves gain the upper hand. And as it headed to extra time, it felt like Saracens still had the momentum.

Whatever happened next would be drama pure and simple.

First Myler kicked three points and hope rose that the tide might yet turn, but Sarries replied straight away and it felt like the energy in Northampton legs had dried up just as the promised sunshine finally appeared. It was Sarries who could still smell victory as the first 10-minute period, which seemed like half that, ended.

The second half of extra time both dripped with tension and drooped with weariness and wil be written into Saints lore forever.

With cramp and exhaustion kicking in everywhere, it seemed inevitable that a mistake would prove crucial.

A penalty given away within minutes was kicked by Sarries to make it 17-20 and all in green, black and gold must have feared Saints tanks were empty.

Players were keeling over in twos and threes and when Billy Vunipola lay flat on his back after chasing another Saints punt, everyone in the ground could sympathise. Saints only needed to pull level to win the trophy as they were ahead on tries scored, but were they capable of a one last tilt at glory?

In retrospect that thought seems almost disrespectful.

Because with three minutes left they enacted the Big Push.

Minutes were melting into seconds as again and again our forwards tried to breach the fortress, with every Saints fan screaming ‘Go on’! to the limits of their lungs. And everybody was thinking ‘drop goal’ except the man that mattered. Myler never once moved into that position and only watched as Saints bodies threw themselves at a wall. No way through and only seconds on the clock.

Hopes were going to be dashed on a black and red wall.

Then a season decided by TMO.

Alex Waller - his name will surely never be forgotten while rugby is played in Nortampton - in a last Herculean effort seized the ball and forced his body line-wards. A mighty act but nobody knew its result, least of all the referee.

JP Doyle deferred to the replay and the almost intolerable tension that was building with every thwarted thrust was tightened to the most impossible level. Incredibly, as the seconds dwindled away, we now had to watch a big screen to see who was the best rugby club in England.

We watched it over and over again. It felt like the whole of Northamptonshire cheered that touchdown half a dozen times trying to call the game for the Saints. Over and over.

The commentary on the Ref Link radio in the press box was apparently saying no, however, he wasn’t sure. Disaster, the whole season is lost. We were slumped in our seats.

But then.

But then, a beautiful moment. Tom Vickers, the Chron rugby writer, sitting in the press box, listening with intensity to the back and forth between Doyle and the TMO, suddenly cries out in tones of excitement mixed with incredulity: ‘He’s going to give it! He’s going to give it!’

‘YES!’ We all jumped and hugged and shouted and punched the air, it’s impossible to remember in which order. Yet again the Saints had pulled it out the bag in the most final of last gasps.

And suddenly the crowd knew and it was all glorious noise and green, black and golden triumph. A moment will stick with me and it is when I turned and looked at the Saints fans behind to take a photo of the celebrations and I noticed one middle-aged man who stood bewildered almost, shaking both fists at the pitch in triumph and wonder at what he’d seen.

I don’t know if the Gardens army played any part in that TMO decision but it felt like they as much as Waller had forced an unlikely victory.

Trademark optimism to the last, focused with pure passion.

What a day. What a season.