The returning Franklin’s Gardens faithful were treated to a high-scoring thriller as Northampton Saints returned to winning ways with a 30-25 victory at home to Wasps.
It was a momentous game that not only saw the long-awaited return of crowds in the stands, but marked two impressive milestones as Club co-captain Alex Waller made his 300th Saints appearance and Api Ratuniyarawa chalked up a century of outings in Black, Green and Gold.
In a tight opening half, three times Saints took the lead – first through Sam Matavesi, then a penalty try and a Dan Biggar penalty – only for Wasps to respond on each occasion and send the teams into the sheds with 17 points apiece.
The game opened up after the break as both sides looked threatening from deep, but ultimately a Tom Wood try and further points from the boot of Biggar were enough for Northampton to secure a win that guarantees qualification for next season’s Heineken Champions Cup.
The crowd at Franklin’s Gardens - the first to be present since December - didn’t have to wait long to have something to shout about. After two early penalties allowed Dan Biggar to kick into the 22, the Saints pack took control, executing a perfect lineout drive to send Matavesi crashing over in the third minute, with Biggar slotting the conversion to open up a seven point lead.
After the attacking maul proved so fruitful, it was the turn of the defensive effort to impress. With Wasps threatening from a lineout 5m out from the Saints line, through Courtney Lawes came on his first Northampton appearance since Boxing Day to get on the ball and win a relieving scrum.
That wouldn’t be the last big defensive intervention from the British and Irish Lion, as his jackal penalty halted another Wasps attack moments later – the blindside flanker ended up with five total turnovers on the day.
Wasps did level the scores on the 20 minute mark as a sharp step allowed Thomas Young to cut through and send Dan Robson away under the posts.
Saints retook the lead shortly after thanks largely to an initial break that was set up by a fantastic piece of skill from from the impressive Lawes, James fielded his offload before chipping into the 22. Charlie Atkinson looked to field the kick but could not gather cleanly as he slid along the deck.
Jacob Umaga played the ball in an offside position close to his own line, and with Matt Proctor and Matavesi chasing hard and in place to otherwise pounce on the loose ball, the only possible decision was a penalty try. And Umaga earned ten minutes in the bin for his infringement.
Despite being down a man, Wasps struck next when Brad Shields powered his way over after a period of pressure inside the 22, with Atkinson converting to once again level things on the scoreboard.
Saints responded by retaking the lead when triple centurion Waller won a scrum penalty in front of the posts; and Biggar made no mistake off the tee.
The hosts threatened to add to the lead through a Tommy Freeman break from deep, but a late penalty saw Umaga level the scoreline at 17-17 heading into the break.
The start of the second half saw Saints look electric both in attack and defence. Ratuniyarawa offloaded brilliantly to send James speeding one more into Wasps territory.
Josh Bassett intervened with an interception a few phases later and looked to be in the clear. Something special was required to hunt him down, and up stepped Ollie Sleightholme to show off his blistering pace and pull off a try-saving tackle.
Wasps thought they had taken the lead through their other winger, Zach Kibirige moments later, only for the TMO to spot a forward pass from Paolo Odogwu in the build-up and chalk the effort off.
A scrum penalty allowed Biggar to push Saints ahead once more, and from there the game opened up a little, with the fluid play culminating in a mind-boggling solo effort from Sleightholme that saw the winger dash up the right before chipping over the top and winning the foot race to dot the ball down over the line. But the TMO intervened again and that effort was, too, removed from the scoreboard.
Another scrum penalty allowed Biggar to stretch the lead out to six points a few minutes later, though Umaga narrowed the gap again with a kick of his own shortly after.
After spending so much of the afternoon defending a narrow lead, finally Saints pulled ahead by more than seven points when Wood pounced on loose ball at a Wasps lineout to scoop and dive over from close range, much to the delight of the Saints supporters.
A very late effort from Tom Willis did ensure a nervy ending, but the Saints defence held on as Emmanuel Iyogun won a crucial breakdown territory, sealing both the win and Heineken Champions Cup qualification for next season.
Attentions now turn to next weekend’s visit of Exeter Chiefs next Sunday (6 June) as the side look to round off their home campaign in winning ways. Tickets for the match – priced at just £30 each – remain on general sale and can be bought online here.