For whom the Beal tolls

Northampton 29 Bristol 21
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The Independent Online
What a relief to be reminded that there is more to rugby than a load of men with blazers and red faces giving press conferences about the latest manoeuvres by bodies with absurd acronyms. After another week in which off-the-field shenanigans continued to dominate the sport's headlines, it had been all too easy to forget that there are still matches being played out on the pitch - and good ones at that.

Northampton and Bristol brought this to our attention again on Saturday. Robert Jones, Bristol's scrum-half, said he thought the dispute between the clubs and the union "hasn't had a major effect on the players. It is the administrators who have most of the worries." His coach, Alan Davies, agreed, contending that the ructions over the control of the English game had affected his players' preparations "not one bit. The players are not at issue in the political challenges that are being taken on by the RFU and Epruc," he said.

Certainly, none of the players looked like they had other things on their minds on Saturday. It was, says Northampton's director of rugby, Ian McGeechan, a game in which "there was full-blown, physical commitment out there." The judder of tackles reverberated in the fifth row of the stand. Simon Shaw, Bristol's powerful lock, left the field strapped to a stretcher after sustaining a cut during a tackle. Later in the second half, the Bristol No 8, Eben Rollitt, received his marching orders after Northampton's Jon Phillips was injured in an alleged stamping. Davies maintained afterwards that Rollitt was not the culprit and Bristol are to appeal against the dismissal.

In among the blood and thunder, however, Northampton provided many moments of sweetness and light. They showed a refreshing eagerness to run penalties from anywhere - one under the opposition's posts led to a try in the corner for their sharp-looking Irish centre Jonathan Bell. Nick Beal, the full- back, was the chief beneficiary of this expansive policy, making countless incursions into the line. He set up the first try, for Paul Grayson, the outside-half, and scored the third himself, arcing between Bristol defenders.

Tim Rodber capped a titanic display by charging over near the end. McGeechan was happy that his all-singing, all-dancing style has transferred so well from the Second Division, where Northampton carried all before them last season. His only nagging worry this season concerned his other role as coach of next summer's British Lions. "I just hope Northampton's opposition are not always trying to impress me," he confided with a wry grin.

Northampton: Tries Grayson, Bell, Beal, Rodber; Penalties Grayson 2. Drop goal Grayson.

Bristol: Tries Corry, Corkery; Conversions Burke; Penalties Burke 3.

Northampton: N Beal; C Moir, J Bell, M Allen, H Thorneycroft; P Grayson, M Dawson; M Volland, A Clarke, M Lewis, J Phillips, S Foale, D McKinnon, T Rodber (capt), B Pountney.

Bristol: P Hull; K Maggs, F Waters, M Denney, B Breeze; P Burke, R Jones; A Sharp, M Regan, K Fulman, P Adams, S Shaw (I Dixon, 48), M Corry (capt), E Rollitt, D Corkery.

Referee: J Wallis (Bridgewater.)