Northampton Saints 29 Harlequins 23 (27th March 2016)
All things being equal, this should have been a write up from the second game of a foreign football weekend. However, a combination of games being cancelled due to it being an international weekend, and stupidly expensive flight and/or problematic flight times kicked that idea into touch, and made me look for another option.
Unlike football, rugby isn’t blessed with a multitude of grounds in this country that I want to go to, but one was Northampton’s Franklin’s Gardens, which has blossomed into a fine 15000 seat venue as the professional game has taken off. I was always just more than a little bit put of by the minimum £43 they charge for seats there though.
However, it transpired that they were playing Harlequins, the team I follow to a degree, and I was able to rationalise the cost of the ticket against the money I’d be saving by not going abroad.
After the previous day’s washout, it was certainly nice to arrive in Northampton and be greeted by bright sunshine. Driving in past Northampton Town’s ground, with its shell of a new stand on one side, I’d be driving half a mile up the road to a ground looking newly complete, having been completely rebuilt since 2001.
Something also enjoying a new lease of life is a Northampton landmark that towers over Franklin’s Gardens, just a few metres to the east. Visible for miles around, and dubbed the Northampton Lighthouse, it is a 125m high tower once used for testing lifts. The lift company has gone, so it now finds itself looking lost stuck in the middle of a housing estate, and is now used as an abseiling centre. Sadly there’s no chance to go up the thing unless you want to be dangled from ropes on the outside of it, and I didn’t fancy that.
Given the speed of the redevelopment – most of the ground was built over a four year period between 2001 and 2005 – it’s quite surprising, and welcome, that no two stands are the same. Yet despite the stands not seeming to have an overall plan, they really work to make a great modestly-sized stadium. It’s so much better than the kind of lifeless all-stands-the-same bowl you often get for new football builds. In the best tradition of piecemeal British sports ground development, one stand even had an extension added just four years after being built, making that end taller than both sides.
The other end is also taller, having been rebuilt for the 2015/16 season. This end used to have no regular spectator accommodation, being three decks of executive boxes. The rebuilt stand has just two rows of boxes, but does have an additional 2000 seats. You do wonder why they didn’t make the stand bigger though, given the demand for seats, and the room behind.
Both this end and the shell at Northampton Town were paid for from grants from the council. Perhaps the stand they built was all they could afford. At least, unlike their football cousins down the road, their budget wasn’t limited by an owner whose ability to make the money vanish attracted the attention of the local constabulary.
There are pros and cons to a rugby crowds over a football one. There’s certainly none of the friction between rival fans, and the lack of any need for segregation does mean fans are free to wander all round the ground if they choose, although most no doubt find a spot serving food or beer, and stick to it. I suspect rugby fans are, on average, a little better off than their football counterparts. Not just because Franklin’s Gardens sells out nearly every game despite the cheapest seat being £43, but also other little hints, such as the match programme containing adverts for Rolex.
This was only the third away game I’d been to with Harlequins. The previous two were both victories, but were both away to struggling sides. Northampton were pushing for a play-off spot, and with Harlequins’ form being patchy this season, making it a hat-trick of away victories was always going to be difficult, even with their internationals returning after the completion of the Six Nations.
They actually did OK, and even had me thinking a win was possible at times, but Northampton always looked more likely, even if it took a long time to really drive the advantage home.
Harlequins opened the scoring with a penalty, only for Northampton to respond with a try. The strongly swirling wind caused the conversion to be missed, and another penalty put Harlequins back ahead.
Northampton again responded strongly and forced another try, only for Harlequins to respond late in the half, with Scottish international Tim Visser running though a gap to score from one of Quins’ rare forays towards the Northampton line.
Harlequins caught the home side cold at the start of the second half, with forward Jack Clifford surging through down the wing to put Harlequins 20-12 ahead, but if the victory then looked distinctly possible, that was as good as it got.
A Northampton penalty and another try put the home side 22-20 ahead, and Harlequins fluffed their next two chances of scoring, opting for risky kicks into a strong wind. Both missed, and between them Northampton’s Harry Mallinder scored what turned out to be a game-clinching try in the corner.
Harlequins did have a late spell of pressure, but couldn’t force the ball over the line. A very late penalty gave them the consolation of a losing bonus point, but it looks like the only league battle they’ll have for the rest of the season is a top 6 finish and European Champions Cup qualification. Northampton, on the other hand, edged into the 4th play-off place, and will be dreaming at winning the premiership trophy they won in 2014. Fans could have a selfie with the trophy behind the South Stand during the game, but somehow that’s not quite the same.