Derick Hougaard of Saracens sank Northampton with a 24-point man-of-the-match performance that hauled his team into the top half of the Aviva Premiership table yesterday as they triumphed 24-17.
Despite an impressive start Northampton's indiscipline proved costly at Vicarage Road as referee David Pearson punished them with a series of penalties and Hougaard, the former Springbok fly-half, filled his boots with seven penalties and a drop goal.
Four penalties from the boot of Shane Geraghty and a try from wing Paul Diggin were rare highs on a disappointing day for Saints, who missed out on the chance to go back to the top of the table, with their cause not being helped by both Calum Clark and Geragthy being sin-binned by Pearson. Brendan Venter, the Saracens rugby director, believed that his side's research of Pearson, and how he officiated games, had given them an advantage.
"We had trouble in the scrum at first, but the pack turned it for us against a very strong Northampton pack who have destroyed everyone ahead of them so far," he said. "We studied Dave Pearson's games so far and he does the same in every game, fair penalty awards and spread across the game. He is consistent and very, very impressive. "And never underestimate how important it is for us to have a fit and available Steve Borthwick in the team in terms of both his tactical brain and leadership qualities."
While Saracens were full of praise for the officiating, Jim Mallinder, the Northampton rugby director, left Watford with a very different opinion of Pearson. He said: "We think Dave Pearson had a disappointing game. When you lose you tend to look at the referee more critically, but we'll look closely at the video before saying anything further. "I do believe the two sin-binnings were harsh. Calum Clark just went in to make a tackle and Shane Geraghty also made a tackle and tried to roll away quickly. A penalty, yes, but hardly a yellow card. These sin-binnings are very important.
"But you need to control the ball to control the game and we didn't during the middle of the game." The visitors had looked dominant in the early phases of the season, but looked out of sorts on a greasy pitch in Watford. Hougaard led from the front immediately and alleviated any pressure that was thrown at his side, despite having a lucky escape when an attempted clearance kick was charged down and almost converted.
The defeat sees Saints leapfrogged at the top of the table by London Irish, who impressed with a dominant 46-12 win over Newcastle Falcons on Saturday. * Press Association