Northampton Saints: How rucks and mauls gave way to snow and shovels

Northampton Saints RFC
Anyone got an orange ball?

A 2,700-mile round trip, knee-deep snow, half a day at the airport and not a sniff of a rugby match.

The Northampton Saints pre-Christmas visit to Romania had very little in the way of festive fun.

But on the plus side, the European Challenge Cup Pool One fixture with Timisoara Saracens is likely to yield five points and the only energy spent was moving snow in an attempt to get the plane ready to take off.

Saints landed in Romania looking for the likely bonus-point victory that would keep them on track for progress in Europe.

The weather forecast had become increasingly bleak in the build-up but 24 hours before kick-off things were still looking peachy for the match against the group minnows to go ahead.

Dan Paltinisanu Stadium, home of the Timisoara Saracens
Kick off is less than 24 hours away...

That changed quickly when the snow started falling on Friday night. By Saturday morning the chances of the match going ahead were looking slimmer than Santa Claus booking a last-minute day off on Christmas Eve.

Timisoara snow
The Dan Paltinisanu Stadium was left under several feet of snow, with more forecast

Graham McKechnie, BBC Northampton sports editor, was meant to be covering the match, but quickly took on a new role as a stand-in weatherman.

"Supporters have made the most of the bars and restaurants in Timisoara and are heading back with some good stories to tell," he told BBC Sport.

"The most surreal thing was the sight of a bunch of local prisoners being brought over to help clear the snow off the pitch, several of whom looked decent prospects to play in the Saints front row."

The players were prepared to get stuck to help clear the snow as part of unusual pre-match warm-up, but it was clear it would be a fruitless exercise.

With the match inevitably called off despite the best efforts of the home side, it was time to go home. Early indications were promising. And there was even a chance of the scheduled flight being moved forward.

But it didn't materialise so players, staff, the 80 or so fans, and officials got to familiarise themselves with Timisoara airport - and the inside of their plane.

"The most surprising thing about the whole trip is how extraordinarily patient everyone's been," McKechnie added.

"We were stuck on the plane for more than six hours with barely a murmur of discontent. Everyone chipped in - the players and supporters, even the referee - were out clearing away snow at one point.

Northampton Saints players, staff and fans try to help clear snow around their plane
"I don't think forming a scrum will help"

"Clearly a frustrating weekend too, though, and perhaps some questions should be asked about the wisdom of playing a fixture in Romania in mid-December."

When hopes of a Saturday night flight had finally faded, several quizzes had been won and lost and the various mobile devices had run out of charge, everyone returned to their hotels for another night in Romania.

It is likely Saints will be awarded a bonus-point win.

Tournament organisers European Professional Club Rugby are expected to announce their decision regarding the match by Tuesday.

McKechnie said: "In terms of what happens next, a five-point win is clearly what Saints are hoping for, with no chance of an alternative date being found. And Saints need the five points, as they try to cling on to Clermont's tail in Pool 1."

Northampton are second in their group with two wins from three games, while Timisoara are bottom with three losses.

Chief executive Mark Darbon said: "It's been a testing 24 hours for our squad and supporters. Thanks again go to our supporters in particular for their patience and also to everyone in Timisoara who has been so hospitable."

Director of rugby Chris Boyd added: "Everyone tried really hard. The local people rallied around. And as for the supporters, quite a few of them came over - we hope they had a nice dinner and few drinks to make up for not getting to see any footie."

Northampton Saints fans and staff board the plane
Saints were finally homeward bound on Sunday afternoon