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Northampton Saints and Saracens a bitter clash

Soane Tonga'uiha of Northampton Saints
Saints prop Soane Tonga'uiha has caused controversy recently

By Geoff Doyle
BBC Radio Northampton

A contest between two sides competing for the right to play at Twickenham in the Guinness Premiership final would normally be enough to whet the appetite of most rugby followers.

But the semi-final between Northampton Saints and Saracens this Sunday has turned into more than that. Much more than that.

For this tie has developed into a grudge match. And the tension between the two clubs has grown steadily throughout the season.

It is a relationship which has flipped from hearty rugby rivalry between two of the most progressive Premiership teams of the season to a nasty, ugly antagonism.

It rates alongside the bitter animosity between Arsenal and Manchester United five years ago.

If Northampton are talking about revenge then I hope it's in terms of just getting themselves ready for what is a very important match

Saracens director of rugby Brendan Venter

The feud continued the last time they met in the Guinness Premiership three weeks ago when Northampton were upset with Saracens' celebrations after their 28-27 win.

Saints hooker and captain Dylan Hartley told BBC Radio Northampton: "Hearing Saracens sing and celebrate after the victory is enough motivation for me and the boys.

"I look at our team and I would like to think we are more humble when we win. I certainly look forward to playing them again."

And Northampton director of rugby Jim Mallinder commented: "That hurt, hearing them singing as if they'd won the league."

It produced this response from Saracens full-back Alex Goode this week: "I'm a bit disappointed with Jim and Dylan. When we won the game, if you look at the tape we didn't celebrate on the pitch at all.

"We shook their hands and a lot of their guys didn't even bother and walked off.

"It was only when we got in the changing room we sang our team song that we have sang at every ground we have won at this year."

So where did the animosity start?

"There's plenty of needle there from Brendan Venter's days at London Irish in years gone by where he wasn't most popular with Saints fans," says BBC Three Counties commentator Jason Harris.

"They are two very different clubs. Saracens are trying to sell themselves to a wider audience in the London area.

"They like to see themselves as a team going places and certainly there will be a few people whose feathers will be ruffled in the way they approach the marketing and spread the word of Saracens.

"It sticks in the craw of many traditional supporters who say it's not rugby."

The sides have met four times already this season; twice in the league and twice in the LV= Cup. The score at the moment stands at 2-2 so this weekend really is winner takes all.

Brendan Venter
Brendan Venter oversaw Saracens' 28-27 win at Saints in April

In the first league match at Wembley, Northampton felt they were hard done by in defeat when Soane Tonga'uiha had a late try disallowed.

Sarries coach Brendan Venter was upset with Saints scrum-half Lee Dickson over the sin-binning of his hooker Schalk Brits.

But the match that really stoked the fire was the LV= Cup semi-final in March.

"There's been massive needle in most of the games between them which came to a head in the LV= semi-final contest.

"You don't get five players sin-binned at one time for nothing," says BBC Radio Northampton commentator James Burridge.

There were five yellow cards dished out that day - four of them to South Africans (Juandre Kruger and Regardt Dreyer from Saints, Ernst Joubert and Mouritz Botha from Saracens) in what was an ugly, violent contest.

The fact that Tonga'uiha made his U-turn on joining Saracens to remain a Saint not long after that game might not be coincidental.

The Tongan prop, this week nominated for the Guinness Premiership Player of the Season, had told Sarries he was joining them in January.

But the 6ft 3in 19-stone player Saints fans call 'Tiny' changed his mind and signed a new three-year deal to stay at Franklin's Gardens.

The reason for his change of heart is still a moot point. It is difficult to get either side to comment but there are strong suspicions that Tonga'uiha was unhappy, not about the physical goings-on, but about the verbal content on the pitch in the Sarries encounter.

But Harris is not sure: "There were some allegations of some unsavoury language going on.

"We can't prove or disprove that but had it been very serious Northampton were well within their rights to complain to the Rugby Football Union and that never materialised."

Even so, Saracens were not happy with the U-turn, describing the Saints statement that they had re-signed Tonga'hui as an 'April fools'.

"If every club was to behave as Northampton have behaved in this matter, we would have chaos - the Wild West. A game where contracts are effectively meaningless and worthless," Sarries chief executive Ed Griffiths told BBC Radio Northampton at the time.

Saints chief executive Allan Robson responded: "Saracens are obviously disappointed that Soane will not be joining them next season after all.

"However, their criticism of the player and Saints is totally without merit. Soane had strong personal reasons for his change of heart."

Premier Rugby were forced to intervene and an agreement was hastily reached although what that entailed is unclear.

Three games down, the fourth match between the pair was sure to be juicy.

And it was an important fixture. Second place and a home play-off semi-final was a stake at Franklin's Gardens and when Sarries came out on top the post-match celebrations began, closely followed by the verbal sparring.

"In the final Premiership match I think Northampton were caught by surprise and losing at home was a bitter pill to swallow, especially after all that had gone before," said Burridge.

Mallinder ignoring controversies

"To some it looked as if Sarrries were rubbing it in when they sung their war dance. The Saints didn't take it kindly.

"They pride themselves on being an old fashioned club doing things in an understated way. But it's clear that game hurt Saints' pride a lot."

Venter commented: "I hope all of this is good for the game and they are just using a bit of banter to increase interest. We have a good reputation as a team and while we play tough we don't play dirty.

"If Northampton are talking about revenge then I hope it's in terms of just getting themselves ready for what is a very important match and nothing to do with physical revenge."

This week Mallinder has said: "Brendan and the rest of the management like to be controversial, they like to have an opinion on most things and that's up to them.

"I don't know if they do it for a purpose, whether it's to try and put us off our game."

So what does Sunday hold in store?

"I think that Wayne Barnes is refereeing on Sunday and he will keep a good level of control," said Harris.

"I don't think there will be skirmishes and the five yellow cards we had in the semi-final.

"Both teams know they have to do a professional job and indiscipline is certainly going to cost their team a place in the final."

One thing is for sure; whichever team wins is sure to celebrate with more than a glint of satisfaction in their eyes.

And do not expect the respective management teams to share a drink after the match.

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see also
Northampton 19-21 Saracens
16 May 10 |  English
Saints aiming big - Sleightholme
12 May 10 |  Northampton
Saracens relaxed over Tonga'uiha
13 May 10 |  Saracens
Northampton 27-28 Saracens
24 Apr 10 |  English

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