Grayson's deftness tames the Tigers

Northampton 22 Leicester 19
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The Independent Online
Prince Charles had his critics when he confessed to talking to plants, so where does that leave Northampton and England outside-half Paul Grayson? At least plants are living things. The affable Grayson admitted he talks to rugby balls after helping Saints squeeze home with a last-minute long- range penalty that went over courtesy of an upright.

"I've hit the post I don't know how many times," said Grayson after accumulating 17 of his side's points, "and we have never had an in-off. You talk to the ball when it is on its way. I was saying, `Don't go any more left', and as it went on I could see it was going to hit the inside of the post. Fortunately it fell the right side."

That kick - some 50 yards from the goal - was awarded in the final minute of normal time, and the Saints' packed house of 8,400 then had to endure a further couple of minutes of injury time while the Tigers threw everything they had into trying to make headway into their opponents' half.

Saints survived. The referee, Chris White, who was criticised by Leicester but praised by Northampton for his handling of the game, signalled the end and the start of hysterical celebrations by the home fans. The wounded Tigers slunk off to contemplate a match they certainly could have won, and a defeat they did not need as the Courage title race hots up.

"That was a horrible start for me," said Joel Stransky, the South African outside-half. He had begun the game on the bench, deciding that he had not had time to integrate himself fully into the Leicester side. "The weather has meant I have had no chance to practise properly; we have been training indoors."

But, of course, fate had other ideas and in the 28th minute the right wing Steve Hackney hobbled off and Stransky, if not quite the schoolboy creeping like a snail to school, then certainly with a heavy heart, stepped on for his Leicester debut. "I've only played twice before on the wing," Stransky said. Class act that he is, he at least made a fist of it and put in some solid tackles, even if he had little opportunity to use the ball.

At that point Leicester had nosed ahead. Neil Back's try having been augmented by two John Liley penalties. It seemed set for a touch on the Leicester accelerator after the interval, when Tigers would put a fair distance between Northampton and themselves. That impression was reinforced within 10 minutes of the restart when Back was driven over for his second try. Again unconverted. Significantly, those four lost points would have been enough to keep Leicester at the top of the First Division.

In the event, the Saints were still only a score behind when they arrived at the turning point of the game. Rob Liley, who is about to lose his first-team place at outside-half to Stransky, attempted a kick from hand. Its destination was rather vague, its height rather low and Nick Beal was able to gather the ball before sprinting upfield like a thoroughbred.

Miraculously, Gregor Townsend managed to stay with him, and as Beal drew the cover he sent Scotland's outside-half on a scorching run to the corner.

Enter Grayson for a successful conversion and it was all square. But Grayson's performance was not confined solely to the boot. He revealed some deft touches and was quite prepared to mix his game. He controlled matters well and will have done his England chances a power of good by proving that he is not a one-dimensional stand-off.

He proved he can cope under pressure. Following that conversion, he hoofed over a penalty to give Saints a lead they held for quarter of an hour until Leicester countered with one of their own. The match then entered the final phase leading up to Grayson's final kick. Leicester were penalised at an apparently safe distance from the posts for killing the ball. Cue Grayson and his conversation piece. You don't have to be mad to play rugby, but clearly it helps.

Northampton: Try Townsend; Conversion Grayson; Penalties Grayson 5. Leicester: Tries Back 2; Penalties J Liley 3.

Northampton: N Beal; J Bell, G Townsend, M Allen, H Thorneycroft; P Grayson, B Taylor; M Volland, A Clarke, G Walsh, J Chandler, J Phillips, S Tatupu (J Cassell, 76), B Pountney, T Rodber (capt).

Leicester: J Liley; S Hackney (J Stransky, 28), W Greenwood, S Potter, R Underwood; R Liley, A Healey; G Rowntree, D West, D Garforth, M Johnson, M Poole, W Johnson, N Back, D Richards (capt).

Referee: C White (Cheltenham).

n Wasps celebrated their signing of the Irish centre Rob Henderson and gave the former All Black Va'aiga Tuigamala a winning farewell with their defeat of Bristol. The win takes them to top of Courage League One. Tuigamala exited with two tries in the 41-18 triumph - Bristol's sixth successive defeat - before returning to his rugby league base in Wigan.