Northampton Saints 24 Leicester Tigers 30: Tom Vickers' review and player ratings
It is said all good things come to an end - and it appears Saints' six-year stay in the Aviva Premiership top four has now reached its conclusion.
Saturday’s defeat to local rivals Leicester Tigers left Jim Mallinder’s men seven points off fourth with just two games of the regular season to go.
Even before yet another exhilarating east midlands derby there was a slight air of resignation, with Saints missing as many as 10 first-team players.
And the defeat just added to the mood of disappointment at a season that promised so much, but delivered little.
During the past two campaigns, Saints were masters of fine margins.
They edged out Leicester and Saracens late on in the play-offs of 2014, claiming their first Premiership title in the process.
And during the following season, they constantly found ways to win, even if they were not at their best.
That resulted in a top-of-the-table finish for the first time, but Saints’ halo eventually slipped in the end-of-season shootout, with Saracens edging them out at Franklin’s Gardens.
Since then, they have often been unable to get over the line when they needed to.
They did so in wins at Bath and Harlequins, sealing late successes, but those have been offset by agonising late blows at the likes of Worcester Warriors and London Irish.
And when they needed to keep their composure against Leicester, they were just found wanting again, with Freddie Burns’ score putting crucial league points out of reach.
The fact Tigers escaped punishment in the form of yellow cards certainly didn’t help their cause.
And neither did the fact they were missing so many players who have built up a winning mentality over the years.
The likes of Dylan Hartley, George North, Lee Dickson and Ben Foden know how to help finish games off.
And the young side that Saints had on the field at the end at Gardens just didn’t quite have the nous.
But they certainly had the desire.
And one thing that can be said about this team is that they do not give in.
They keep fighting, driven by a passion for the club, which, for many, has come from growing up at the Gardens.
The likes of Mike Haywood and Teimana Harrison, again two of Saints better players, kept cajolling their team-mates and pushing them forward with relentless fervour.
But, ultimately, as has been the case on a number of occasions this season, it wasn’t quite enough.
In a brutal season, finding form at the right time is crucial.
You need a fast start and a flying finish, but Saints’ best spell came in the middle and they have been unable to maintain it with injuries starting to bite.
Everyone saw what happened to the likes of Saracens and Harlequins when they lost key players during the Six Nations, and Saints have missed theirs of late.
But they have performed with plenty of courage nonetheless and there are plenty of positives in the squad at the Gardens.
The likes of Haywood, Harrison, Ben Nutley and Jamie Elliott have stood up to be counted.
And if Saints can get more big games from their big names next season, they will bounce back.
But for now, they will need to use the hurt they felt on Saturday night to push them on next season.
Supporters and players so used to dining at the top table have had a reality check, knowing there are now a number of teams capable of making the play-offs.
And next season, Saints will need all of their firepower to get back where they feel they belong.
They still have to secure a top-six spot this time round and that will be no easy task.
But though the top four is now a distant dream, they must ensure they finish with a flourish.
Then, they can take a bit of momentum into the next campaign and ensure they are still feasting on Champions Cup rugby when it all starts again.
That is the minimum requirement for a club that rightly expects the maximum from its men.
How they rated...
Didn’t have a chance to make an impact on the game as injury restricted him to just 15 minutes of action... 5.
A couple of lively breaks from the sharp Samoan wing, who always does what he can to get in the game... 6
Showed superb power to help Saints make the most of their pressure with a try. The centre was up for this... 7
Mixed one moment of brilliance with a moment to forget. His superb burst helped to tee up Harrison’s try, but his loose pass under pressure gave Vereniki Goneva an intercept score... 6
Did superbly to stop Telusa Veainu scoring early on and the wing was impressive defensively while trying to get something going in attack... 7
Kicked pretty well and tried to get Saints moving with some flat passes, but couldn’t quite outshine his opposite number... 7
Lots of talk before the game centred around Saints not having a replacement nine on the bench, but they didn’t need one as this man put in a top display... 8
A strong showing from the prop, who allied power with desire to help his team put pressure on Leicester... 7
Yet another strong showing from the hooker, who plays close to, or all of, the game every week and never looks tired... 8
Wanted to show his worth and he did that with a power-packed performance that included some big carries... 7
Got through plenty of work and the lofty lock has really shown his value during the past few weeks... 7
Defended well and also tried hard to make some ground in attack, once again showing how important he is to the team... 7
Part of another big back row display, the England man constantly tried to use his physicality to floor Tigers... 8
Put everything he had into this game and one brilliant burst showed just what he can offer in attack as well as defence... 8
Another big game from a big player. The No.8 continually drove into Tigers and registered a try in the first half to breathe new life into Saints’ bid... 8
Replacements (who played more than 20 minutes)
HARRY MALLINDER (for Tuala 15)
Helped Saints rebuild after a tough start and was really impressive, showing he can be a very good full-back as well as inside centre... 8
PAUL HILL (for Brookes 59)
Continues to grow as a player and Saints never lose anything when this young man comes on... 6
VICTOR MATFIELD (for Day 59)
Came on at a time when Saints were putting Tigers under pressure, but couldn’t really have the influence he would have liked... 5
CHRON STAR MAN: Freddie Burns (Leicester)