Northampton Saints 59 Vodacom Bulls 22: Tom Vickers' review and player ratings

Ollie Sleightholme (photo by Paul Harding/Getty Images) (Photo by Paul Harding/Getty Images)Ollie Sleightholme (photo by Paul Harding/Getty Images) (Photo by Paul Harding/Getty Images)
Ollie Sleightholme (photo by Paul Harding/Getty Images) (Photo by Paul Harding/Getty Images)
Whatever Saints put on the half-time oranges during the past seven days, they need to make sure they bottle it and take it to Dublin on the first weekend of May.

Because this black, green and gold bunch have refused to concede a single point during the second half of either Investec Champions Cup knockout match, seeing off Munster and Vodacom Bulls.

Rather than emerge from the dressing room slowly and take their time to get into the game again, Saints have come out of the blocks flying to make sure of progression.

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Whatever is being said during the break, and whatever is being done, it is working to perfection.

And it has resulted in them flying all the way to the semi-finals of Europe's top tier tournament, in which they will now face perhaps the toughest test of them all, a trip to take on Leinster.

But what this Saints team has showed time and time again is that when they are hit with setbacks, they can hit back harder.

Against Munster and the Bulls, untimely punches were landed on Phil Dowson's side.

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They went behind against the men from Thomond Park only to level things up before the break and then pull away with two special George Hendy tries after half-time.

They switched off somewhat late in the first half against the Bulls, only to give themselves a kick up the backside and emerge bigger and better after the interval to take the game away.

It has been a theme of the season that this Saints team rallies when it needs to the most.

They continue to create special memories week after week, showcasing their stellar development.

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And this young team, this brilliant young team, just keeps getting better as the seconds tick by.

The average age of the nine to 15 that they selected against the Bulls was little more than 23, with Alex Mitchell the old man at 26!

These fearless, swashbuckling young bucks are meeting challenges head on and they look like they are absolutely loving it.

That enjoyment is translating into pure entertainment at the Gardens as the atmosphere continues to get louder and louder with each passing match.

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Saints supporters are savouring watching this talented team because not only only are they putting on a show, they are winning, too.

No trophies have been secured yet, but so many memories are being made.

And the experiences these players are gaining at the top level, including with England, are absolutely invaluable.

You can see how much the coaching they are receiving at their club is benefitting them and how much better they are getting as the season goes on.

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If that can continue on that upward curve, then who knows what they can achieve.

But for now, they will very much be tasked with keeping their feet on the ground, with danger lurking around every corner.

Saints' schedule - which sees them face Leicester Tigers, Harlequins and Leinster in the space of the next three weeks - is incredibly exciting but also incredibly brutal.

So they will have to get their player management right and do what they can to keep this emotional energy as high as they can.

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It was clear what happened when they let that slip a little before the break against the Bulls, who pounced on a couple of sloppy moments to bring themselves back into the game.

Saints snuffed out any hope the South African side had early in the second half as they flicked the switch once again.

And now they will need to do everything they can do banish any of those momentary lapses against the sides who they will face for the remainder of this month and in May.

But Saints know that if it does happen again, they have the solutions needed to find a way through choppy waters.

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They can now rely on so many different aspects of their game to get them out of jail.

Last season, it often felt like their only get-out clause was their attack.

And when that didn’t function, they were left flailing as it sucked the life out of their resistance.

But this time round, the defence has also come to the party in key moments.

They will need that all-court game in the weeks ahead.

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But for now, they can enjoy another job well done as they march into a first Champions Cup semi-final since 2011, when, of course, they went all the way to the final, eventually losing to Leinster.

The fact they are back at these latter stages again is all the more surreal considering they had lost their previous 10 Champions Cup matches going into this campaign.

They had not won since January 2020 before they rocked up to Scotstoun Stadium and stunned Glasgow Warriors in December.

It was a sign of things to come as Saints, who have won six from six in this season’s Champions Cup, continue to break new ground at home and abroad during the current campaign.

And that is a trend they will very much hope continues.

How they rated…

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JAMES RAMM - another two tries as he took his tally to five in three games. He’s back to where he was last season when he won the players' player of the year prize. So good... 9

GEORGE HENDY - his eyes lit up on a couple of occasions as he tried to repeat his Munster try-scoring heroics but it wasn't to be as he had a quieter outing here... 7.5

TOMMY FREEMAN - started at outside centre and looked strong while also playing his part in a superbly-worked score for Alex Coles... 8

FRASER DINGWALL - eventually had to come off with a knock after he put so much into this performance, showcasing his physicality and skill as he scored one try and helped to create another one... 9

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OLLIE SLEIGHTHOLME - CHRON STAR MAN - an absolutely electric showing from the birthday boy, who performed so well that he was serenaded with a birthday song or two from the Gordon Terrace. Delivered a stunning solo try... 9

FIN SMITH - pulled the strings all night long for Saints, adding more try assists to his name as he produced a performance that certainly made him a contender for the man of the match award... 9

ALEX MITCHELL - so, so sharp, the England scrum-half cut the Bulls apart on a couple of occasions, scoring twice during a superb showing... 9

MANNY IYOGUN - another mountainous performance from the prop as he took the Bulls to task with his power game... 8.5

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CURTIS LANGDON - always sets the tone for this team, and this was no different as he went charging around the field, applying so much pressure... 8.5

TREVOR DAVISON - the prop has proved to be a simply superb signing for Saints and he continues to get better and better in all aspects of the game. Almost grabbed a Fin Smith kick ahead for a try, which would have been delightful... 8.5

ALEX MOON - a huge shift from the second row, who used his physicality to help carry Juarno Augustus over the line during a performance packed with desire... 8.5

ALEX COLES - etched his name on the scoresheet once again as he went charging forward on several occasions, showing his athleticism... 9

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COURTNEY LAWES - kept Saints' lineout secure while wreaking havoc at the Bulls set piece and also showcased some fantastic handling as well as scoring a try in which he refused to be stopped. Battled a back spasm to start, and was outrageously good again... 9

SAM GRAHAM - full of strength and determination, the flanker did what he could to push the Bulls back at every turn... 8

JUARNO AUGUSTUS - looked to be absolutely loving this encounter with his compatriots, and he eventually capped a fine night with a try... 9

Replacements (who played more than 20 minutes)

SAM MATAVESI (for Langdon 52) - picked up the pieces on a few occasions and kept the energy levels high for his team... 7.5

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ANGUS SCOTT-YOUNG (for Lawes 52) - looked hungry for action as he flew around the field, eager for work... 7

LEWIS LUDLAM (for Graham 52) - an excellent man to bring from the bench as Saints took off skipper Lawes and sent on club captain Ludlam at the same time... 7

ALEX WALLER (for Iyogun 57) - two scrums, two penalties for Saints to start his night as the experienced front row forward relished his replacement role... 8

PAUL HILL (for Davison 57) - a second excellent cameo appearance in a row for the prop, who was hugely impressive at scrum time and also showed his worth around the park... 8

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