Saracens stunned Northampton 21-19 in their Guinness Premiership semi-final clash at Franklin's Gardens to book a place in this season's finale.
Tries from outstanding fullback Alex Goode, winger Chris Wyles and hooker Schalk Brits and a man of the match performance from fly-half Glen Jackson including a superb late conversion inspired an upset win and carried Saracens into their first ever Premiership final. Tries in either half from props Soane Tonga'uiha and Brian Mujati had put Saints on course for victory but they had no answer to Brits' late score and were guilty of failing to orchestrate a last-gasp drop goal opportunity for fly-half Stephen Myler.
Saracens were a far more adventurous side, but once Saints got a grip up-front and began exerting a vice-like grip through their forwards there seemed no way back for the visitors. Goode, somehow overlooked for England's summer tour to Australia and New Zealand next month, was easily the game's most accomplished performer. He outshone Northampton's revered back-three of Ben Foden, Chris Ashton and Bruce Reihana by showcasing a dazzling skills-set, and his performance ultimately reaped the reward it deserved as Saracens booked a Twickenham appointment with Leicester or Bath.
Northampton, beaten by Saracens on home soil 22 days ago, fielded South African Mujati in the tighthead role instead of Scotland international Euan Murray, whose religious beliefs mean he does not play on a Sunday. The visitors, meanwhile, were boosted by Goode's recovery from a thumb injury. Goode reclaimed his familiar No.15 shirt, which meant Wyles switching to the wing instead of Richard Haughton. The clubs' fifth meeting this season followed an acrimonious month marred by the Tonga'uiha affair, in addition to Northampton criticising Saracens' victory celebrations at the Gardens three weeks ago.
Northampton began brightly and when Saracens flanker Andy Saul was penalised for not releasing Saints offered a signal of their intentions by kicking to the corner but the visitors snaffled the ball and cleared the danger. A superb steal and run from No.8 Roger Wilson then had Saracens scrambling back in defence and Burger's desperate attempts to snuff out the danger saw the Namibian sent to the sin bin and Myler give Northampton the lead from the kicking tee.
The home side were soon pressing again with winger Ashton, flanker Phil Dowson and fullback Foden combining well but simple errors robbed them off territory and momentum. And they were made to pay by Saracens who conjured a superb score to take the lead. Winger Michael Tagicakibau injected some blistering pace to cut through the Sarries line before feeding hooker Schalk Brits who surged towards the 22 where the ball was recycled wide to Goode who crossed for the opening try of the game. Jackson's conversion made it a seven-point score and he was narrowly wide with a drop goal attempt midway through the half.
Northampton continued to be undone by a crippling penalty account with Ashton in particular feeling the wrath of referee Wayne Barnes with the winger guilty of exuberance on more than one occasion. It was left to the Saints pack to lead the fight back by going back to basics and a huge driving maul laying a good foundation only for errors to return and blunt their attack.
There was no quarter given by either side at the breakdown where a ferocious battle played out with first Ashton and then Goode providing eye-catching flair to compliment the bruising physicality of the contest. But it was the unlikely figure of prop Tonga'uiha who delivered a fitting finale to the opening period. The Tongan, the subject of a tug-of-war between the two club earlier this year, stormed up the short side before shrugging off Goode and crashing over in the corner. Myler made a mess of the conversion but his side were back in control as the sides headed to the tunnel.
A knock on at the start of the second period handed Northampton the ball in the shadow of Saracens' posts and pressure at scrum time from Tonga'uiha drawing a penalty that Myler duly slotted. But the match soon swung back to Saracens with the visitors once again rewarded for their ambition. The increasingly impressive Goode drew two tacklers in midfield before feeding replacement Kameli Ratuvou who in turn worked the ball to lock Hugh Vyvan who found winger Wyles for another excellent try that was converted by Jackson. The tit-for-tat exchange continued with the cool-headed Myler bringing his side level with a penalty just two minutes later.
Northampton were soon knocking on the door again with a powerful catch and drive deep inside the Saracens 22 resulting in a try for Mujati, another reported transfer target for Saracens, but Myler could only pull his conversion attempt wide of the posts. With renewed vigour, Saints pressed forward with Foden chasing down a clearance that drew yet another penalty inside the Saracens 22. The kick went to the corner for the lineout before Tonga'uiha and then Ashton went close to scoring but they were unable to find an opening.
Northampton went in search of the match-winning score as the game entered the final ten minutes but replacement wing Joe Ansbro saw the door slammed in his face by a resolute Saracens defence. The visitors then responded with Tagicakibau powering upfield where successive penalties against Saints increased the pressure on the home side and laid the platform for the match-defining score. Saracens kicked to the corner for the lineout and Brits powered his way over with a little help from his friends although he had to wait for the TMO to confirm the score.
Jackson slotted the high-pressure conversion to give his side the lead with just three minutes of the game remaining and set up a nail-biting finale. Foden and Ashton led Saints' riposte and they proceeded to set up camp on the Sarries' 22 but they were unable to conjure the drop goal opportunity for Myler who coughed up possession and with it the game.