Saints 2019/20: Tom Vickers' review of the season so far

While 2020 has so far provided few moments of joy for Saints and the wider world, the same could not be said about 2019.

Sunday, 5th April 2020, 12:43 pm
Saints won at Saracens on the opening day of the Premiership season

Because after a strong end to last season, the black, green and gold maintained plenty of momentum moving into the new campaign.

They managed to ally a silky playing style with substance, bringing results that saw them tussle at the top end of the Gallagher Premiership.

And they also made a good start to life back at Europe's top table, feasting on French and Italian fare as they defeated Lyon and Benetton.

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Fraser Dingwall finished things off against Leicester in November

Players such as Dan Biggar and George Furbank came to the fore as the team steered themselves into promising positions in league tables.

The Premiership Rugby Cup, which had been won the previous season, was written off as pure preparation rather than a prized asset.

It put Saints in good shape physically for the start of this season, and that showed as they rocked up at Saracens and won there for the first time since 2015.

It would be a sign of things to come as more memorable wins followed.

Dan Biggar booted Saints to a late win at Benetton

Saints were suddenly finding the consistency they so desperately sought during the 2018/19 season.

The likes of Worcester and Harlequins were swatted aside in back-to-back Franklin's Gardens successes after the win at Saracens, which came with a depleted squad.

A blip on a boggy Bath pitch followed, but Saints, welcoming their World Cup stars back, including winner Cobus Reinach, quickly overcame it.

They were not fancied against a Lyon side leading the French league, but they battled hard against the Top14 giants, taming their during a fantastic first half at the Gardens before keeping them at arm's length after the break to start the Champions Cup in style.

Teimana Harrison scored during a dramatic win at Wasps

Benetton looked set to put a big spanner in the works in Treviso a week later, but a stunning second-half comeback, capped by Biggar's ice-cold last-gasp penalty won the day in front of a sizeable and noisy travelling support.

Leicester became the next victims of Chris Boyd's swaggering side as the Tigers failed to find their feet in Northampton.

They may have welcomed their England stars back, but they had little impact as Saints, despite the fact they lost three key men just before the game, reigned supreme.

Difficult times followed, with an invincible Leinster team and Sale Sharks sticking the boot in over three weeks that took the shine off Christmas.

George Furbank finished a flowing move at Lyon

But Saints again recovered well, ending the year on a high with a nervy but entertaining win against Gloucester before starting 2020 with a bang at Wasps.

It had looked like they had been stung by a second-half comeback from the hosts at the Ricoh Arena, but Taqele Naiyaravoro came in like a wrecking ball from the bench and pounced to win the day for his 13-man team.

Benetton were beaten again before perhaps the display of the season as Saints rolled their sleeves up and overcame a 17-5 half-time deficit to win at Lyon, earning their first victory in France for a massive nine years.

It booked a place in the Champions Cup quarter-finals, with Exeter Chiefs the team lying in wait.

And things looked oh so good from a Saints perspective.

But then came a turn of events no one saw coming.

London Irish, who had been on a lengthy losing streak, scored twice in the final seven minutes to ruin Saints' unbeaten home league record, the only one that was left in England's top league.

Bristol then rubbed salt in the wounds with a quickfire comeback on the same ground, and then Exeter eviscerated Saints at Sandy Park, earning a 57-7 triumph.

Saracens inflicted yet more second-half misery on Saints soon after, with the black, green and gold having surrendered three half-time leads in succession on home soil.

They headed to Worcester with their fans' heads bowed, worrying that the slide would be unstoppable until key men returned from an injury list that resembled a massive menu.

But Saints stood tall, surviving a late scare as they stopped Worcester scoring from the final play of the game.

A 16-10 win was secured at Sixways.

It was far from pretty, but it felt pretty significant.

What has happened since then had dimmed that feeling.

But if Saints do return to complete this season, they have the kind of platform many others crave.

Progress has clearly been made and there can be no doubt about the improvements made since this time last year.

Whether Saints get the chance to convert them during this campaign remains to be seen.

But for now, their supporters can look back on happier days, when the sun started to shine on their team again and the glint of silverware began to catch the eye again.

Tom's player of the season so far: Dan Biggar

The Wales fly-half has been so vital to his team's fortunes. When he was missing during some of the Six Nations, Saints had a tough time, despite the fact they have a player of huge potential in James Grayson. Biggar is quite simply world class, allying a metronomic kicking game with the kind of silk and style that make him the complete No.10. He has held his nerve in key moments, including at Benetton back in November, and he has become a huge hit at Saints.

Tom's young player of the season so far: Alex Coles

The former England Under-20s lock wasn't expected to play too much this season with boss Chris Boyd admitting it was supposed to be a 'regeneration and development year' for the 20-year-old. But he has been pressed into service in recent months with Saints so short of senior second row forwards due to injury and suspension. And Coles has stood as tall as his lofty frame, looking far from out of place during a series of big shifts. He is a player with a big future.

Tom's win of the season so far: Lyon 24 Saints 36 (Saturday, January 18, 2020)

Saints headed to France in January knowing only a win would do against a Lyon side pushing on towards the top of the Top 14. It was a huge mission, even with their hosts having no chance of making the quarter-finals. Lyon named a team packed full of big names and turned the screw during the first period, taking a 17-5 half-time lead. It looked like Saints' last-eight hopes had gone up in smoke, but they came out for the second half with renewed determination and renewed vigour. And what happened next was nothing short of sensational. Saints won the second half 31-7 to record their first win in France since the Heineken Cup final campaign of 2010/11. They also picked up a bonus point in the process to set up a quarter-final at Exeter.

Tom's moment of the season: James Grayson's late penalty at Saracens

This was a really tough call. George Furbank's silky score at Lyon was also in the running, and so was Dan Biggar's late winner at Benetton and Taqele Naiyaravoro's victory-grabbing score when Saints were down to 13 men at Wasps. But James Grayson's penalty had to take it as Saints looked like they had suffered yet another defeat at Saracens on the opening day of the Gallagher Premiership season. Saracens came back to lead and another Allianz Park loss seemed inevitable, but it wasn't to work out like that as Grayson held his nerve to spark celebrations in the away camp.

Tom's hopes for the rest of the season: A top-two finish and a huge performance at Exeter

If the season does resume as everyone hopes, Saints will still harbour real dreams of making the top two in the Gallagher Premiership. And if they can get the Champions Cup quarter-final at Exeter played, with a full black, green and gold squad, there is no reason why they shouldn't have aspirations of doing something special at Sandy Park. For now, we will have to see. But Saints fans should continue to dream big in the months ahead. It's not the hope that kills you. It's the hope that keeps you alive.

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