Northampton Saints and Worcester Warriors locked horns at Franklin’s Gardens for a preseason hit-out on Friday afternoon.
The visitors edged the scores 20-25 after 120 minutes (four quarters of 30 minutes) of rugby – but in truth with both sides agreeing to kick no penalties or take conversions ahead of the contest, the match was far more useful for both sets of coaches to gauge where their sides need to improve ahead of the Gallagher Premiership’s opening matches next week.
FIRST QUARTER: Saints 0 – 5 Worcester
SAINTS: Tuala, Naiyaravoro, Proctor, Francis, Collins, J Grayson, Taylor; Waller (c), Fish, Hill, Moon, Isiekwe, Wood, Tonks, Adendorff
Worcester edged a cagey first quarter of action 5-0, with Joe Batley scoring the only try of the opening 30.
It was the visitors who enjoyed some early territory, but a big defensive set from Saints forced the knock-on and after Tom Collins hacked clear, Ahsee Tuala was unlucky not to latch on to the loose ball and Warriors were able to get the ball into touch.
Skipper Alex Waller won a breakdown penalty in the middle of the park to mark his return to action, while James Grayson won a couple of early kicking battles to move Northampton up the field.
The hosts turned up the pressure, winning a penalty in midfield and then another right in front of the posts, opting aggressively for a scrum in front of the posts.
However the ball just squirmed out of Piers Francis’ grasp with the line at his mercy, and with no-one at home for the hosts as Worcester hacked clear, Warriors made massive ground and ended up trapping Francis – who had tracked back well – under his own posts for a penalty.
The visitors also turned down the shot at goal, with both sides clearly in search of tries in this preseason skirmish, and Saints held out with another strong defensive set forcing a knock-on.
But the deadlock was finally broken by Worcester, as despite a promising break by Grayson, the fly-half’s pass just evaded Taqele Naiyaravoro, and after the winger recovered well to save possession, his pass was picked off by Batley who sprinted 40 metres into the corner.
SECOND QUARTER: Saints 10 – 10 Worcester (10 – 15)
Owen Franks was introduced into the action at the start of the next 30-minute quarter, replacing Hill, and Saints started brightly with a brilliantly-executed crossfield kick from Grayson finding Naiyaravoro, who was hauled down just short.
A high tackle on Francis brought another penalty for Saints, who kicked to the corner again and as almost every player in Black, Green and Gold piled into the rolling maul, remarkably it was winger Collins who came up with the score.
Warriors struck straight back however as despite a good tackle from Grayson in midfield, the visitors had quick ball and numbers out wide, and Melani Nanai was able to carry the ball towards the sideline and then scythe through a gap as Saints scrambled to cover.
Henry Taylor’s inch-perfect box kick allowed Shaun Adendorff to make a massive hit after a good chase, and as Billy Searle cleared for Warriors, Saints were given a good attacking opportunity.
Nick Auterac entered the action and two more quick penalties for Saints handed the hosts lineout opportunities inside the 22, and finally Northampton burst across the whitewash as Taylor took a quick-tap penalty and Wood burrowed over to score.
Saints were soon piling on the pressure again as Naiyaravoro, Matt Proctor and Adendorff all carried well, but when the ball squirmed out of a breakdown on Warriors’ side of the play, Worcester took full advantage with Nanai breaking almost the length of the field down the right and hacking through for Gareth Simpson to touch down under the posts.
The last five minutes of this second period were spent entirely inside Worcester’s 22; Warriors infringed time and time again as Saints looked to score, but with no shots at goal taken, a final lineout from Northampton was overthrown and the visitors cleared to touch with the clock in the red.
THIRD QUARTER: Saints 5 – 10 Worcester (15 – 25)
SAINTS: Freeman, Gillespie, Dingwall, E Grayson, Olowofela, Mathews, James; Auterac, Marshall, Painter, Ratuniyarawa, Coles, Hughes, Newman, Uru
Northampton began the second half with almost a completely fresh line-up, and Saints’ youngsters ripped through Worcester in the opening seconds of action, with Tommy Freeman and Josh Gillespie combining superbly to send centre Fraser Dingwall under the posts.
Freeman was in the action again moments later with another searing break from deep inside his own 22, but with no support around him initially, Saints came into the breakdown at the side and conceded a penalty.
From there Worcester built the phases and Chris Pennell found some space to set up Jono Kitto in the right-hand corner.
Fullback Freeman yet again caught the eye with a third huge line break, but he could not find Gillespie on his shoulder and Worcester recovered.
Warriors were next over the whitewash for their second score of the quarter as fly-half Tommy Mathews was just caught in possession inside the 22, and the visitors kicked a penalty into the corner before driving over from the resulting lineout.
Emmanuel Iyogun replaced Auterac at loosehead prop, and in the dying moments of a hugely entertaining third quarter, Ethan Grayson was just inches away from an interception which almost certainly would have led to a try.
FOURTH QUARTER: Saints 5 – 0 Worcester (20 – 25)
Samson Ma’asi, Connor Tupai and Karl Garside were Northampton’s replacements ahead of the final 30 minutes of action, and Ma’asi and Tupai combined brilliantly moments after their introduction to send the hooker through the middle, before he was hauled down on halfway.
Grayson was then released by Dingwall but the young centre just held onto the ball too long with Iyogun and Olowofela outside him, and Warriors were able to recover possession.
But then Freeman capped a fine performance with a try, as he was fed by Dingwall on the 22 to go through a gap and finish to the right of the posts.
The young fullback somehow found yet another hole moments after the restart but Jamie Shillcock was able to haul him down, and the break in play saw Dani Long-Martinez and Tom Litchfield come on for Gillespie and Grayson.
The final few minutes of action saw both sides threaten to score, but neither were able to convert late chances as the overall score stayed at 20-25 to Warriors.