It’s been a tough season for Saints supporters but creative writing graduate Joanna Hollins found consolation at the Wanderers A-league final, pictures by Dave Ikin
Being a Northampton Saints supporter is a source of great local pride. Over the last few years, it has seemed like the team were being pushed to higher and higher standards, producing huge numbers of internationals, and boasting some of the biggest names in premiership rugby. 2014’s double victories for the first team raised the bar to unmatchable heights; watching the first team grind to a reasonable, if disappointing, seventh place has felt like a baffling turn in the club’s fortunes.
But for those needing encouragement, it may be found in the progress of the Northampton Wanderers, the Saint’s academy side. After finishing second in the Aviva A League last year, the promising team defeated Gloucester United in a fierce and confident final at Franklin’s Gardens on May day. The Wanderers put forward a stellar side, combining a younger Academy team with a few from the Saints side to put forward a formidable team. While some might miss the most experienced players, there was nothing missing from the pitch. The Wanderers play a high-intensity, focussed, and spirited game, and there was a tangible sense of a team who work and play together thinking as one.
The first half demonstrated a solid defence, responding to Gloucester’s early lead – an elegant try from Carwyn Penny – repealing a strong attack from the visitors. Both sides were struggling with poor handling due to the damp conditions, and coming into the break one point behind Gloucester, it felt uncertain as to whether the Northampton side could make enough ground to put them into the lead. The mood in the ground was nervous. Low clouds had been threatening the ground with another outbreak of rain all afternoon, and as the floodlights came on, they parted, leaving the sun-facing crowd dazzled.
If it was an omen, it was a good one. The Wanderers came into the second half with confidence. Rory Hutchinson’s first half try soon had company, with one try from Ben Nutley and two from Tom Collins. Difficult positioning made it impossible for Sam Olver to convert every try – I’d defy even Stephen Myler and his magic feet to convert from 22 metres – but with four penalties and two conversions he showed considerable skill and ability. Gloucester played well, proving that they deserved to be in their first ever Aviva A league final, but the Wanderers consistency and drive had created an incontestable lead by the 60-minute mark. The game ended with a last minute try from Gloucester’s Ollie Thorley, a well-deserved moment for the finalists, and bringing the final score to 36-15.
If anything, it was those last few moments of the match which brought home everything that makes Northampton a great club. Supporters of both teams celebrated Gloucester’s try, even though it deprived the winning team of a glorious match ending, moments after the excited crowd had broken into the most tuneful version of ‘When the Saints go marching in’ that I have ever heard at a game. The final was also Ethan Waller’s last game with the Saints before he – and Sam Olver – depart for Worcester. Former Saints players seem to keep a sense of loyalty to the team, and there was no lack of enthusiasm in the cheers for the departing players.
The Wanderers don’t have the fun of handing out signed balls to young fans, as the Saints do, but players from both teams came to the edge of the pitch to chat and pose for photos after the Wanderers had finished celebrating with their competition trophy. For younger supporters, or new fans of the game, it’s an ideal introduction; all the fun and excitement of a premiership match including prizegiving, but in a more relaxed environment. It’s also an interesting game for veteran rugby supporters to talent spot, and enjoy the freshness and innovation of the younger players. But if what really matters to you is atmosphere and heart, the Wanderers games are the best place to find it. They’re also free for season ticket holders (£5 adult/£2 concession for non-season ticket holders), which from one of the more expensive clubs in the premiership, is a canny move to attract second-team support.
Having moved to Northampton from (dare I write it) Milton Keynes a few years ago, it was becoming a Northampton Saints supporter that made me feel part of the town. The Wanderers often slide under the radar as the ‘second team’, and so their support base is considerably smaller than the first – although the official match turnout of 3,645 would make many second teams envious. And yet Wanderers team represent our strongest attributes as a club: determination, preparation, and a belief in the future of Northampton.
Looking through the crowd at the Aviva A League final, I spotted a few familiar faces; many first team players had come out to support their teammates. There was an electricity in the air that wasn’t down to the low-hanging clouds, or the stadium lights. I left wondering if there was a better way to spend a bank holiday Monday – and if there was any chance we could send the Wanderers on to finish the season…