Northampton Saints booked their place in the Premiership Rugby Under-18s League Final for the first time in seven years on Saturday, and Academy coach Will Parkin could not hide his delight after a 37-19 win over Newcastle Falcons.
An impressive first quarter in the winner-take-all clash saw the young Saints build up a 22-0 lead; with tries from Archie Kean, Henry Pollock and Frankie Sleightholme adding to seven points from fly-half Tommy Taylor’s boot.
Newcastle hit back just before the break but an impressive solo effort from Toby Cousins put Northampton 27-7 up.
Falcons crossed twice quickly and brought the game back within eight points, but Saints’ youngsters kept their foot on the gas to see Sleightholme claim his brace and fly-half Taylor added a conversion and a penalty from the tee before the final whistle blew.
The bonus-point win saw Saints top the Northern Conference and bag their place in the trophy match on Finals Day; and Parkin was thrilled with the character his side showed to come through their final regular-season clash.
“I’m so pleased for the lads,” he said. “We spoke about nothing changing for us in the Falcons match despite the possibility of us finishing top of the Northern Conference.
“For us, the most important thing is always the performance, and I think there were periods of that game were excellent.
“The first 20 minutes was some of the best rugby we’ve played all season. Our intent to get the ball back in defence and the speed we were playing in attack was really pleasing.”
Saints will head to Sixways Stadium for Finals Day to face Bristol Bears on Sunday 27 February (kick-off: 5.30pm), and their outing against unbeaten Bristol will mark Northampton’s first appearance in the Under-18s Final since 2015.
Having won the title in 2014 against Exeter Chiefs with a squad including the likes of Rory Hutchinson, George Furbank, James Fish, Lewis Ludlam, Karl Wilkins, Harry Mallinder and Howard Packman, Saints were beaten 12 months later by Saracens.
Despite Furbank, Fish, James Grayson, Alex Moon and Ehren Painter all featuring that day, Northampton were beaten 23-19 – and Parkin insists that, seven years on, his young side must not let the prospect of silverware disrupt them on the field.
He added: “Obviously it’s great to make the Final, I’m delighted for the lads to have that opportunity.
“But, for us, the focus will be on the performance again. It’s another great opportunity for the lads to play in a big game and experience this type of pressure.
“It will be a good challenge to try to produce the same kind of performance we put together last Saturday, and we will need to play at a high level for 80 minutes if we are to get the result against Bristol.
“Our thanks must go to all the parents, clubs and schools we work with – none of it would be possible without their continued support throughout the season.
“And also, a huge thank you to all the supporters that turned out to watch the boys play against Newcastle. Finishing the league on the main pitch at cinch Stadium at Franklin’s Gardens was a brilliant experience but running out in front of a 500-strong crowd made it a fantastic day for the lads.”