Finally it came. The story of this season for the Saints could have been: close but no cigar. So many times fans had seen their team lose the last gasp arm wrestle and fall at the final hurdle. Sometimes it was bad luck, sometimes it was bad tackles, so many times it came down to one score.
When the elusive win came against Harlequins it was still not enough to grant Saints an automatic place in the Champions Cup – Europe’s elite competition. A nervy play-off victory against Connacht followed and then, with fans nerves in tatters and their throats hoarse by the end, came this thrilling 23-22 victory over the star-studded Parisians in pink, Stade Francais.
Genia was masterful for the visitors and even when the Saints scrum marched Stade backwards he was spiriting the ball away to launch devastating attacks.
For the first half and a lot of the second he was the difference, only the boot of Mallinder kept Saints in touch, but they were in touch and doing good things. Some of the best players in the world wear black, gold and green.
Parisse arrived on the pitch and briefly two legendary Number 8s locked horns on Northampton grass as Picamoles arrived on top of him at an ensuing ruck. The Frenchman greeted the Italian with a smack on the backside. So rugby.
Courtney pinched lineout ball and motored into the action like a tank with a sports car engine. North rocketed into swarms of Stade defenders. Across the various positions on a rugby pitch there is a trade-off being made between physical strength and physical agility. At Number 10 there is a trade-off between mental strength and agility. How can you be both the metronomically reliable kicker and the mercurial distributor who can change everyone’s plans in a heartbeat?That was Mallinder’s lonely job and he had a great game for his team.
Things were going right all over the pitch but Saints were still not quite joining the dots. Foden ran a great line and scored under the posts but as he ran back, he moved with the demeanour of a man who knew the job was far from done.
The referee had attracted the wrath of a boisterous crowd on one or two occasions but there was fury when he raised the red card to the Saints Captain. Wood had put his foot into a ruck and Camara stayed down afterwards, the two players angrily confronted each other as Wood departed. The Saints fans from that point were singing and shouting to the end of the game.
They still needed a converted try for victory. They were a man down. Picamoles had left the field. There was a mountain to climb but the fans were demanding it, they were baying for it. Mallinder shot the ball out to Tuala, he twisted and turned through three defenders and suddenly the line was under him and the ball was down. Happy, happy Franklin’s Gardens.
Mallinder slotted the conversion and now the Saints just had to get through ten minutes of marching in: the killer ten minutes that had been ruining everything all season. Heywood was on, Dickson was on, so the team on the field was a team without Myler, Hartley, Picamoles, Brookes, Groom or Wood. But the crowd in the stands, ignited by the sending off of the captain, were having a cup final all of their own.
And for some reason, who knows what magic governs these things, it was the Stade players fumbling, miscalculating and losing their way under the Friday night floodlights. The ref fell out of love with the visitors and upgraded a free kick to a penalty and by the time Mallinder put it away it was all over bar the ecstacy.
On the way out some old boy said to me: “That was the second, no third best Saints game I have ever seen…”
Yes, we roared them home at the Premiership Final just like we did for this game. But yes, there was also that win over the Tigers on the way. So securing a ninth year of top flight European rugby is worth a lot for lots of reasons. It was pure gold to be there but if we could have done it by beating Leicester…