Fixture: London Irish v Northampton Saints
Competition: Gallagher Premiership, Round 21
Date: Saturday 26th March 2022
Stadium: Brentford Community Stadium
Northampton Saints’ visit down the M1 this weekend to take on Declan Kidney’s London Irish marks the long-awaited return of the St. Patrick’s Party, the first with fans at the Brentford Community Stadium.
The historic occasion rides on the crest of last weekend’s qualification for the Premiership Rugby Cup semi-finals after beating Harlequins 34-19, with the Exiles currently the only side in the tournament possessing a 100%, maximum points record.
Fellow Pool 3 opponents Saints notched a bonus-point win of their own against Saracens to keep their hopes of progression alive, but attention now switches to a league setting with Chris Boyd’s men getting the better of Irish in Round 3 of the Gallagher Premiership.
Dan Biggar’s late penalty proved vital on that occasion, and both clubs will be bolstered by the welcome return of similar international starlets for this weekend’s fixture after the completion of the Guinness Six Nations.
Saints arrive in west London for their first trip to the BCS with their first consecutive pair of wins since early December, with a narrow 27-22 win over Wasps preceding their novel Premiership Cup win this year against Sarries.
Boyd’s side are winless in their last two league road trips, and with six rounds of Gallagher Premiership rugby outstanding, they remain five points adrift of the sixth-placed Exiles in ninth, all the while with a game in hand.
The boss- Chris Boyd:
With the native New Zealander’s time at Franklin’s Gardens approaching its conclusion this summer, Boyd will maintain an advisory role with the Midlands side with Phil Dowson and Sam Vesty being promoted to Director of Rugby and Head Coach respectively.
Boyd added Northampton’s sixth major honour of the professional era in the form of the 2018/19 Premiership Rugby Cup, reaching the play-offs for the first time in four attempts that same year.
The 63-year-old arrived in Northampton off the back of a successful tenure in charge of Hurricanes by taking them to their first and only Super Rugby title to date in 2016.
One of the most experienced coaches operating in the game commenced his career off the field with a nine-year spell with Tawa Rugby Club, having two stints with hometown club Wellington Lions, initially as an Assistant Coach and then as a Head Coach before spending time with Sharks and New Zealand U20s.
One to Watch- Alex Mitchell:
Renowned as one of the country’s leading scrum-halves at just 24-years-old, Alex Mitchell earned a debut try alongside his first cap for England last autumn in the win over Tonga at Twickenham Stadium.
One of Saints’ main creative sparks has registered four tries in his last six matches and 10 try assists this season, with his famed footwork and ruck speed (tied with Irish for fastest ruck speed in the league with 3.29 seconds) forming a basis of Saints’ eye-catching attack, which is in the top five teams in points (512) and tries (63) scored alongside Irish.
Mitchell switched Academy setups from Sale Sharks back in 2015 and aided in Northampton Wanderers’ back-to-back Premiership Rugby Shield titles in 2017 and 2018 respectively.
He retains the most tries (eight), clean breaks (12), defenders beaten (47) and offloads (17) by any scrum-half in the Premiership this term, with only Harlequins’ Danny Care (1158) and Exile Nick Phipps (1133) making more passes than Mitchell (995).
Classic Encounter: London Irish 40-5 Northampton Saints - 26th November 2006 - Guinness Premiership
Brian Smith’s London Irish put in a five-star, five-try performance over Northampton Saints back in 2006 to attain maximum points at the Madejski Stadium.
The Exiles could not have gotten off to a better, more stylish start as Mike Catt’s cross-field kick found Justin Bishop on the right flank, who then offloaded back in-field to Delon Armitage to canter over.
Paul Hodgson’s quick thinking from a tap-and-go penalty saw Irish reach double figures with as many minutes gone, and Irish’s footwork came in clutch again as a combination of Bishop and Armitage kicked the loose ball up the park for the former to finish.
Steffon Armitage being held up over the line denied Irish the try-bonus before the break, but the ever-influential Mike Catt made amends with a drop goal and try, with Topsy Ojo hustling his way over in the corner to finish off the game.
Tries: Delon Armitage, Paul Hodgson, Justin Bishop, Mike Catt, Topsy Ojo
Penalties: Shane Geraghty (2)
Conversions: Shane Geraghty (3)
Drop goals: Mike Catt
Try: Mark Robinson
Forwards Coach Phil Dowson commended how his inexperienced side dealt with a tricky away tie at the StoneX Stadium against Saracens in the Premiership Rugby Cup, ultimately winning 46-35.
“We wanted a win, but we also wanted to see how players coped with the different environment,” Dowson explained.
“It’s very important for the players who haven’t had many opportunities to wear the Saints shirt to play together.”
Five Saints debutants took to the field in north London, one of which was Frankie Sleightolme who crossed the whitewash for the determining score after a late flurry from the hosts.
Dowson celebrated: “We got what we wanted because we want to see the guys under pressure, we want to see them play together and we want to see them given an opportunity, and I thought lots and lots of guys performed and put their hands up.
“They showed that they are capable of playing for Saints.”