McGeechan given food for thought

Rugby Union: Northampton 41 East Midlands 3
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The Independent Online
There were two stone-cold certainties surrounding Northampton's festive flirtation at Franklins Gardens yesterday: that Stirling County, their appointed visitors from Scotland, would decide to stay at home and that the Saints' faithful would consign their customary fanaticism to the back burner just for a day and do likewise. A steaming plateful of curried turkey or a meaningless outing on a brick-hard pitch? No contest.

Which just goes to show how wrong the cynics can be. The Scots fulfilled their half of the double wager by crying off, but they gave the Saints sufficient notice for them to conjure up an alternative in the rag-tag shape of the East Midlands, who last sent a side to the Gardens 73 years ago as a gesture to the memory of Northampton's first great hero, the First World War victim Edgar Mobbs. To their eternal credit, the supporters turned out in sufficient numbers - 3,000 plus was the best estimate - to justify the effort.

Sadly for those who parted with their Christmas beer money to watch a match that had the word "anachronism" stamped through its middle - Northampton's senior squad was to be found on the training pitch rather than the competitive one while the East Midlands team was drawn from such renowned rugby hotbeds as Luton and Leighton Buzzard - the anticipated return of Martin Bayfield, the England and Lions lock, failed to happen.

Bayfield, missing all season because of a chronic pelvic condition, had pencilled in the fixture for a possible comeback but the prospect of pounding around on a surface hardened and rutted by frost helped him resist the temptation.

There were others intent on proving a point to Ian McGeechan and his fellow Saints selectors, irrespective of the conditions.

First among them was Chris Johnson, the former Leicester and England Under-21 hooker, whose career has been in freefall for the last 18 months. Blessed with outstanding ball skills and quicker than most back-rowers, he underlined his talents yesterday against willing, if outclassed, opposition.

Johnson let rip as early as the seventh minute, breaking clear on halfway and leaving most of the East Midlands back division for dead before realising to his horror that his try would not count because of a forward pass earlier in the move. He would get his consolation in the second half, though, crossing at the right flag after a half-break and a round-the-corner pass from Ben Cohen, his left-wing.

Cohen cut quite a dash, opening up the visitors at will with his rapid forays from the deep. Northampton have wings coming out of their ears - Harvey Thorneycroft, Craig Moir, Ian Hunter, Michael Dods and the versatile Nick Beal are all chasing places on a weekly basis - but Cohen has already tasted first-team rugby this season and on this evidence will soon provide another option for McGeechan.

Northampton: Tries Merlin 2, Taylor, Cohen, Foster, Johnson, Law; Conversions Hepher 3. East Midlands: Penalty Tapper.

Northampton: J Walker; A Beales, N Law, M Foster, B Cohen; A Hepher, B Taylor; C Allen, C Johnson, P Brunel, J Hearne, M Birke, S Foale (capt), D Merlin, N Clark.

East Midlands: P Feetham; P Jarram, J Chandler, S Williams, J Cooley; A Tapper, M Llewellyn; S Barter, P Hales, L Mansell, C Wright, R Searle, J Allen, P Alston (capt), M Wright.

Referee: P Dickens (East Midlands).

Rob Wainwright, Scotland's captain last season, made a try-scoring return for Watsonians against Heriot's FP. Wainwright, who has been out of action with an achilles tendon problem since returning from Scotland's summer tour of New Zealand, went over for an early try. Gavin Hastings also scored a try but Watsonians were eventually overhauled 34-27 by Heriots, for whom the former Olympic sprinter Elliot Bunney scored a hat-trick of tries.