Tom Vickers looks back on a season of contrasting fortunes for Saints

Jim Mallinder saw his Saints team finish top of the league for the first time, but then come up short in the end-of-season play-offs (Picture: Kirsty Edmonds)

Jim Mallinder saw his Saints team finish top of the league for the first time, but then come up short in the end-of-season play-offs (Picture: Kirsty Edmonds)

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From relishing the tag of underdogs to taking on the title of top dogs.

The past two seasons have seen a wave of change sweep around Franklin’s Gardens.

And in the campaign just gone, Saints proved they could stand up to scrutiny, in league format at least.

After setting fire to their bridesmaids tag with a win in the Aviva Premiership grand final last May, Jim Mallinder’s men had some doubters.

There was a fear that taking on the moniker of champions would put too much pressure on Saints.

That a squad that saw little change would find it tough to prove themselves second time round.

But any anxiety about that was crushed during the opening 80 minutes of the season.

A display saturated with swagger saw Gloucester struggling to keep up as Saints blitzed the Cherry and Whites in an emphatic 53-6 opening night win at Franklin’s Gardens.

The following week’s defeat at Wasps showed what they would be up against away from home as Wasps displayed desperation to topple the champions.

But Mallinder’s men bounced back, winning their next four games before heading into Europe.

A defeat to Racing Metro in Paris put them on the back foot in the inaugural Champions Cup but again they showed character to recover by beating Ospreys a week later.

George North scored four tries in that game, single-handedly grasping the bonus-point win that was needed.

And the Wales wing, who had also scored a hat-trick against Gloucester in the league curtain-raiser, was cooking on gas.

Saints would only lose one more game in 2014, with Exeter Chiefs upsetting the odds during the autumn internationals.

And the calendar year was to finish in some style, with the derby-day victory against Leicester Tigers bringing back memories of the semi-final win seven months earlier.

That success, secured despite the early dismissal of Dylan Hartley for an elbow on Matt Smith, left pundits gushing with praise.

Saints, it seemed, would not only win back-to-back titles, but they would do it with aplomb.

Then came what George Pisi would call a ‘speed bump’ in the season.

Results continued to be positive, but performances drew some criticism.

Where had the team that tamed the Tigers gone?

The sobering defeat at Sale in early January was comfortably the season’s nadir.

Saints were starved of possession by the Sharks, who showed real bite in a richly-deserved 20-7 success.

Another defeat to Racing Metro ended hopes of a home quarter-final in Europe, while an LV= Cup loss at Leicester meant Mallinder’s men also had to travel in that competition.

Saints flew through February, with a brilliant win at Bath restoring faith, before a mad March that encompassed a thrilling recovery in a 33-33 draw at Gloucester, an LV= Cup semi-final defeat at Saracens and a points-fest against Wasps.

That victory would come at a cost as North was knocked out by Nathan Hughes’ knee and ruled out for what proved to be the rest of the season with concussion.

But there was still real hope that Saints could peak when it mattered, just as they had done a year earlier.

April brought chastening defeats at Clermont and Exeter, ending European dreams and putting pressure on to secure a home semi-final.

Those worries were ended with a comeback win against Saracens and a comprehensive success against London Welsh as top spot was secured for the first time in the club’s history.

Mallinder then kept his powder dry in the game at Welford Road as Saints enjoyed a pressure-free east midlands derby, resting and rotating to stay fresh for a Premiership play-off semi-final a week later.

And it was to be the old nemesis, Saracens, who were to provide the opposition after sneaking into fourth on the final day.

As they had in their previous two knock-out ties of the campaign, Saints failed to bring their best when it mattered.

But despite that 29-24 defeat, they could look back on a league campaign in which they coped with being top dogs, even if the trophy cabinet suggests otherwise.