Saracens survived a dramatic late assault to celebrate their first visit to Wembley with victory over Northampton in front of a 44,832 crowd.
Trailing 16-3 after Noah Cato had raced in an interception try two minutes into the second half, Saints chipped away at the deficit through a Jon Clarke try and the boot of Shane Geraghty. Prop Soane Tonga’uiha wriggled over with just under two minutes to go but the TMO ruled a knock-on amid a frantic finale that lit up an otherwise dull encounter.
Stadium chiefs may have banned the planned camel racing but the day still retained a sense of occasion and Saracens will justifiably deem the Wembley experiment a success. Performances by Diversity, winners of Britain’s Got Talent, a display by the Royal Marines and a tug of war ensured the first club rugby union match staged at the home of English football boasted a lively bill.
With tickets competitively priced – the most expensive was £10 – Saracens were always destined to make a loss after shelling out close to £300,000 to hire the stadium. But the 44,832 attendance – the whole top tier was closed – smashed their previous highest of 19,000 for their league title decider against Newcastle in 1998.
The challenge now facing Saracens is to transfer some of that interest to the gloomy surroundings of Vicarage Road, which will host their next home game against Gloucester in two weeks time. The outlook on attracting more fans – 9,000 is their average gate – will improve if they produce better performances than today’s disjointed effort.
On the first of four planned outings to Wembley this season, they struggled to make any impression beyond the kicking of Glen Jackson and rarely threatened the try line. Perhaps inspired by England’s 5-1 thrashing of Croatia in midweek, all the first-half points came from the boot with two penalties and a drop-goal from Jackson helping Saracens to a 9-3 interval lead.
Play opened up in a second half controlled by Northampton, but other than a fine try by Clarke and that nail-biting climax they were equally uninspiring on their approach to the try line.
By the end of the first quarter Saracens’ pack had taken control up front, camping themselves in Northampton’s 22 and creating a successful drop goal opportunity for Glen Jackson. Geraghty, a summer signing from London Irish, replied in the same way to reward Saints for a dominant spell but Saracens were soon back in front.
Openside Scott Gray acrobatically shoulder-checked Schalk Brits at the restart in an incident that may interest the citing officer and Jackson slotted the three points. Saints again walked a thin line when Paul Diggin blocked Alex Goode after the full-back had chipped ahead close to the line but Saracens had won another penalty and Jackson was on target once more.
Two minutes into the second half Saracens surged further ahead when winger Cato forced a fumble from Dylan Hartley, picked up the ball and ran three-quarters of the pitch to score. Cato’s challenge on Hartley was high but any grievances Northampton had were forgotten two minutes later when centre Clarke barged over. Geraghty’s delayed pass made the try, the England fly-half slipping the ball to Phil Dowson who sent Clarke over.
Jackson and Geraghty exchanged penalties as Saracens entered the final quarter 19-13 up, but that lead was reduced further by another three points from the Saints playmaker. The London club’s problems grew when Brits was sin-binned for killing the ball with 12 minutes to go, but this time Geraghty missed the penalty before Saints failed to capitalise on their late pressure.