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Saints suffer Stoop heartache

Travis PerkinsSponsored by Travis Perkins

That the Saints were missing several international forwards during the last month made the achievement of a third successive Aviva Premiership Rugby semi-final remarkable in itself. That they were eight points up with 10 minutes to play at the home of the table toppers - despite the late withdrawal of Chris Ashton from the starting line-up - made the disappointment all the more palpable.


'What if' may be the pervading thought of Saints supporters during the coming months. 'What if' those players had been fit? 'What if' Ryan Lamb's conversion of Lee Dickson's try had drifted between the uprights instead of just to the left?


But when all was said and done, the experience gained from the last couple of seasons was sitting on the sidelines instead of being out on the pitch, and Saints will have to lick their wounds and plan more improvements over the summer.


However should the players involved at the Stoop learn the lessons from the game then it will only benefit the black, green and gold effort in the future. At the end of the game there were two teenagers on the flanks, a 24-year-old hooker who six months ago was playing part-time in The Championship, and a winger who is at the end of his first season playing at this level.


When added to the pool of talent which is already at Franklin's Gardens it shows how bright the future is at the club. And the effort that the team put in at the Stoop was certainly appreciated by the 2,000-or-so travelling supporters, who gave the players a standing ovation at the final whistle.


Nevertheless, one stark fact remains. The Saints will not be heading to Twickenham for the 2012 Aviva Premiership Rugby Final after what ended up becoming one of the most dramatic games of a dramatic season.


Still, on paper the first half would have looked pretty unremarkable. Twenty-one points shared between the two fly halves and a relatively high error count with ball in hand, especially given the clear conditions which saw the Stoop bathed in spring sunshine.


That, however, would be doing the two teams a massive disservice. Yes, there was only the one clear sight of the whitewash when the Quins pack drove for the visitors' line just after the half-hour. And yes, the number of clean line breaks could be counted on one hand.


But this was an encounter which had plenty of ambition shown by both teams, which was by and large matched by some thunderous effort in defence.


Saints would have been the happier at half-time, leading 12-9 despite having had Roger Wilson in the sin bin for the last seven minutes of the half. But they started on the back foot, conceding an early three points when some backchat took a penalty into Nick Evans's kicking range.


There was also some luck when Ryan Lamb's tap tackle not only brought Sam Smith down but forced the winger to fumble when clear in space.


Saints still had their bright moments in the opening exchanges, Lee Dickson tapping a penalty quickly to put Quins onto the back foot, and the backs looking to make the most of the clear conditions to put the ball through the hands.


While both attacks were ended by unforced errors Quins seemed to be feeling the pressure, too, a couple of their own moves coming to an end with the ball left behind and Mike Brown kicking out on the full while in the clear. This proved to be a costly error as from the lineout Saints set up a maul, the hosts pulled it down and Lamb tied things up with a long-range penalty.


Another penalty nudged Saints in front, before the hosts created the first clean break of the match with 26 minutes on the clock when great hands from George Pisi put Vasily Artemyev straight through the middle. The Russian showed the first line of defence a clean pair of heels, but some excellent defensive awareness from Brown first stopped Artemyev passing, then won a penalty when the full back made the tackle.


Still Saints kept having their chances, Lamb again going for goal from long-range, but when this went wide Quins used the let-off to springboard them to the other end of the field. The hosts had been competitive at the restart, and when Maurie Fa'asavalu recovered the 22 some powerful running took Quins away from their own danger zone.


The Samoan was involved again later in the play, this time going through two tackles in the visitors' 22. And while Saints lost Roger Wilson to the sin bin close to their line they conceded just the three points from Evans.


Nevertheless it was the Saints who ended the half the stronger, Lamb landing his fourth penalty and Ben Foden, Paul Diggin and Pisi combining well down the left to stretch the hosts again. This time no points were forthcoming, but Saints still had a three-point advantage going in for their half-time Gatorade.


Quins came out all guns blazing at the start of the second half, tying things up with an Evans penalty and winning a scrum against the head which negated a promising opportunity for the Saints. And the momentum swing continued when more pressure forced Dickson to concede a penalty on his own 22 which allowed Evans to nudge his team back in front once again.


Saints needed something to go their way, and when James Johnston was penalised for obstruction at the kick off they got exactly what they needed, three more points from Lamb's right boot.


Then just as Quins were winding up another attack up stepped Lamb with a vital interception. The fly half may not have had the pace to outsprint Brown to the line, but when the support arrived quicker than the defence a penalty was inevitable.


When Evans lined up a shot at the sticks it looked like the lead would be short-lived once again. But for once the radar was off, and three minutes later Saints would be further in front.


The action thus far had showed that it was going to take something special to break the deadlock, and the try which finally opened up the gap on the scoreboard in Saints' favour was a peach. Pisi, as he has done so many times this season, opened up the defence with an offload to Artemyev, who broke clear. This time the winger found his support, and Pisi (again) combined with James Downey to put Dickson over.


Lamb hooked his conversion just wide, but while Saints were now two scores clear all it seemed to do was galvanise Quins into action.


The first three points came with eight minutes to go - Evans on target again - and as the volume inside the stadium grew proportionately and the stage was set for an epic finish.


The hosts had thrown the ball around throughout the game, but - quite literally - the game came down to the push and shove of the forwards, who powered a rolling maul to the sticks for Joe Marler to emerge with the try.


Evans slotted the conversion, and when Lamb's kick off held up in the wind to land shy of the 10-metre line Quins could see out the clock and book themselves a place at Twickenham.


REFEREE Andrew SMALL


TIMELINE

3mins QUINS Pen Evans 3-0

11mins SAINTS Pen Lamb 3-3

14mins QUINS Miss pen Evans

16mins SAINTS Pen Lamb 3-6

19mins QUINS Pen Evans 6-6

21mins SAINTS Pen Lamb 6-9

29mins SAINTS Miss pen Lamb

33mins SAINTS Yellow card Wilson

34mins QUINS Pen Evans 9-9

37mins SAINTS Pen Lamb 9-12

HALF-TIME QUINS 9 SAINTS 12

48mins QUINS Pen Evans 12-12

55mins QUINS Pen Evans 15-12

57mins SAINTS Pen Lamb 15-15

62mins SAINTS Pen Lamb 15-18

63mins QUINS Miss pen Evans

66mins SAINTS Try Dickson 15-23

72mins QUINS Pen Evans 18-23

77mins QUINS Try Marler Con Evans 25-23

FULL-TIME QUINS 25 SAINTS 23