Gritty Blues fall to flying Saints

A strong physical performance by Oxford’s Blues was not enough to save them from a 27-10 defeat at the hands of Northampton Saints on Monday night.

The Blues came into their penultimate game before December’s Varsity match on the back of a win against Major Stanley’s XV, but faced the same team which had dealt them an away loss 26-0 back in October.

The opening exchanges were marked by the bulkier Northampton side asserting their physical presence in the match. Oxford had possession in the opening minutes but the pressing game of the Saints forced much of the early action into the Blues’ twenty-two. The pressure broke in the 11th minute. After an Oxford penalty kick failed to make touch, Northampton’s backs assaulted the Blue defensive line and finally found a gap in the right wing for Northampton’s hooker to touch down the ball and open the score.

The Blues followed the concession with a period of possession and pressing, but a scrappy dropped ball undid the territory gain that had seen them make their first real foray into the Saints’ last quarter, and the away side were soon back on the attack, winning a pair of penalties that placed their lineout perilously close to the Oxford tryline. Here, the brute physical strength of the Northampton pack came to the fore as, after a maul, Northampton’s number 8 Teimana Harrison burst over the line to double the visitors’ lead. After a second missed conversion, Oxford again reacted quickly, pressing into the opposing half before a messy ruck on the left wing, just two metres from the Saints’ tryline, led to Oxford being awarded a penalty try, accompanied by the ten-minute suspension of Northampton’s try scorer Harrison.

Oxford enjoyed a period of some control for the ten ensuing minutes; the loss of Northampton’s number 8 swung the weight of the pack into the Blues’ favour. Had it not been for a careless penalty given away on the Saints’ 5-metre line they might have levelled the scores sooner, but in any case as tempers flared towards the end of the half, Oxford showed their own physical grit for pop Bob Baker to score and leave the teams 10-10 at half time.

Northampton’s second try scorer Harrison came off shortly after the break with an arm injury, but the pattern of the game remained the same as the visitors continued to use their physical size to thwart Oxford’s game. Ten minutes into the second half, the Saints nosed in front with fly half Will Hooley’s first successful penalty of the match. Northampton sensed an advantage and for the next ten minutes kept pressing the thin Blue line until replacement Danny Herriott forced his way through a maul to touch down just as the clock ticked past the hour. With the conversion duly drilled between the sticks by the Saints’ substitute fly half enigmatically named only as “Oliver”, the scores stood at 20-10.

Ten minutes before the final whistle, Oxford won a penalty just inside the Saint’s ten-metre line, but the kick for the posts fell wide. As the home side’s hopes for a win began to evaporate, Northampton went on a final offensive, scoring a fourth try beneath the sticks with a burst of fluid passing play that left the Blue defence scattered. After a formality of a conversion, the final minutes of the match ticked down with some possession and pressure from the Blues but with no real suggestion of threat.

The Blues’ overall performance had positives – at times they pushed the Saints back in spite of the disparity in size between the teams. However, their passing play and use of the width of the pitch was markedly poorer than the visiting team’s, issues which they will surely wish to address before the one game that really matters against the Light Blues in two weeks’ time.