Rejuvenated Northampton face mission improbable in Premiership play-offs

first_img Pinterest Saracens and McCall wary of Cipriani threat in Premiership semi-final Share on WhatsApp Since you’re here… The Breakdown: sign up and get our weekly rugby union email. Share via Email Rugby union The lack of continuity partly explains why Wasps were this season 33 points worse off than they were two years ago. It is no coincidence that the two clubs with the lowest player turnover this season are once again Exeter and Saracens, the Premiership’s top two for the second consecutive campaign.Continuity breeds consistency. Exeter finished on the top of the table with 86 points, one more than last year when they also improved by a point from the previous season. Saracens’ totals in the last three campaigns have been 78, 77 and 77 and the pair, who have home advantage in Saturday’s play-offs, are on course to meet in the Premiership final at Twickenham for the third time in four seasons.Standing in their way are two clubs who did not finish in the top four last season, Northampton and Gloucester. The Saints will be visiting Sandy Park for the second time in a week after losing there 40-21 in the Premiership’s final round.Northampton have not prevailed at Exeter in the league since 2014 when they went on to win the title, while Gloucester, who travel to Allianz Park this weekend, have not beaten Saracens away since 2008 and have conceded 100 points in total on their last two visits. Mission improbable for both, perhaps, but at the point where a league turns into a cup, different rules sometimes apply.Northampton were not holding back at Exeter last weekend, needing to win to ensure they finished fourth and made the play-offs. Had James Lang’s late, long penalty for Harlequins at Wasps not fallen just short, the Saints would have been thinking about next season but they are arguably the most improved team in the Premiership this season, up five places and 13 points from last season.The Saints have been rejuvenated under their New Zealand-born director of rugby, Chris Boyd. A team that became stuck in its ways after winning the Premiership in 2015 has become menacing in broken play and far more unpredictable. The transformation was not instant, six defeats in the first nine Premiership rounds, but their record in the last 13 sees them with one victory more than Saracens and one fewer than Exeter. Share on LinkedIn Matt Proctor, pictured in action for New Zealand against Japan last November, will join Northampton next season. Photograph: Eugene Hoshiko/AP Northampton Share on Messenger Read more Premiership Twitter He replaces Luther Burrell, who is switching to playing rugby league at Warrington, and it sums up how Northampton has changed. Burrell was a fixture in the old Saints, a reliable trucker-up of the ball who was an ancillary forward on the charge, making metres and getting over the gainline for his team to go again, but there is now an emphasis on skill and an ability to think quickly. David Young was reflecting on Wasps’ fitful season after their victory against Harlequins last Saturday. It was his side’s fifth victory at home in 16 matches in all competitions this season and they finished eighth in the table, down from third the previous season and first in 2016-17.“The squad I have put together for five seasons has pretty much run its course,” he said. “It’s time to press the reset button and go again.” And so it will be another close season of new faces at the Ricoh Arena, 15 players in, including seven from the club’s academy, and 15 out. No other club has a greater turnover, although Harlequins match it with 12 in and 18 out.Only six of the team that started the 2017 Premiership final against Exeter will be at Wasps next season. Willie le Roux, Christian Wade, Elliot Daly, Danny Cipriani, James Haskell and Nathan Hughes are among the players who have departed, not forgetting Kurtley Beale who missed the match through injury.center_img Topics Support The Guardian The Breakdown Facebook Boyd knows all about Proctor having coached the Hurricanes for three years from 2015. The signing is not an attempt by Boyd to turn the Saints into a team which, inspired by the Barrett brothers, has become a byword for the outrageous, but given the impact of their half-backs this season along with the growing influence of Rory Hutchinson and Tom Collins in the outside backs, it will confirm they are now operating in more than one dimension.Their fate at Sandy Park will hinge on whether they are able to disrupt the supply-line of a team adept at holding on to the ball, slowing ball down after a tackle, defending driving mauls and minimising their penalty count, a task that would have suited the old Saints.A week is not too short for a turnaround. In 1985, Cardiff went to Pontypool for an uncordial friendly and were thumped by 30 points, third in a two-horse race. Seven days later the two clubs met again in the Welsh Cup semi-final, admittedly at a neutral venue, Rodney Parade. Cardiff won 24-3, formidable in the areas they had been weak. But that was then …• This is an extract from our weekly rugby union email, the Breakdown. To subscribe just visit this page and follow the instructions. Exeter Share on Facebook The play-off is a bonus for Northampton whose minimum goal at the start of the season was to qualify for the European Champions Cup. Boyd’s influence will become more pronounced in the coming seasons and in one sense they go into the weekend having a free turn of the wheel.A year ago, Newcastle went to Sandy Park after creeping into the top four, lost heavily and never looked forward again, only upward as they finished at the bottom of the Premiership. That fate should not await Northampton who are starting out under Boyd and have a back division which, with Matt Proctor arriving from the Hurricanes, should be one of the most potent in the league next season. Danny Cipriani targets World Cup place after player of the season award Share on Pinterest … we have a small favour to ask. 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