Rugby Union: Beal is full of appeal

Northampton 22 Gloucester 8
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The Independent Online
THIS WAS a grim and, at times, a grisly business. In the conditions, of course, close-quarter combat and the ball in the air were the orders of the day and were repeatedly barked from the touchline by Gloucester's director of rugby, Richard Hill. His instructions were, however, in vain. The action was understandably confined mainly to the forwards and victory therefore went to the side displaying the greater variety and control up front.

Without being at their best Northampton were still infinitely better than Gloucester in this area. And when Chris Fortey, the Gloucester hooker, was despatched to the sin-bin for persistent infringement, the game was up for them. Even when the packs were numerically equal Gloucester were struggling but in their reduced state they conceded a penalty try at a crucial time for collapsing the scrum and there and then lost any hope of victory.

In the volatile and uncertain world of professional club rugby Gloucester had dispensed with their forwards' coach Keith Richardson in midweek. There was a hint of player power in the decision which, following hard on the heels of Phil Greening's departure, suggests a certain divisive element within the club. But with John Brain, Richardson's predecessor, restored to the coaching duties, Gloucester's forwards had no excuses on that count.

Their vulnerability had been obvious early in the match when Northampton's superior scrummaging power had threatened to engulf them. The Saints' pack had taken their cue from the first scrummage, at which they not only shoved Gloucester backwards but won a penalty. This early success convinced Northampton's forwards that the match could be won through their scrummage and, in the event, they were proved right.

Scrummaging was, however, something of a lottery in the treacherous underfoot conditions and, at times in the first half particularly, Gloucester displayed a greater awareness, occasionally calling for and getting a swift heel. On one occasion Steve Ojomoh ripped through Northampton's defence to cause a flutter of panic. Still Northampton persisted in their narrow ambition, which was proving successful enough, Ali Hepher slowly building up the points through penalties for a variety of Gloucester offences. Before he went off, to be replaced by Paul Grayson, he had kicked four penalties and a conversion of the penalty try.

His general game, however, lacked the necessary control, and when the conditions cried out for the deftly-placed grubber behind Gloucester's defence, he persisted in chipping the ball over the top. Presumably acting under instructions in the second half, he was more successful with the tried and tested up and under.

Fortey's departure proved to be the turning point. Having got themselves back into the match through Audley Lumsden's try, their depleted pack was no match for the Northampton eight. Furthermore, they were forced out into the open and a high-risk strategy. Lumsden's try, though, was one of the few moments of light relief in the relentless grind. From a scrummage which offered a generous blindside Gloucester moved right, Simon Mannix providing Lumsden with the scoring pass.

With Mannix having earlier kicked a penalty, Gloucester moved into the lead just before half-time. It was short lived. A minute into injury time Hepher kicked his third penalty.

If the penalty try was the decisive moment it was closely followed by Matt Allen's crunching tackle on the Gloucester captain Richard Tombs, who was rocked backwards and a try had been saved.

The return of the Gloucester pack to full strength failed to rekindle their spirits. Northampton rightly concluded that their eight-point cushion, soon to be extended by Hepher's fourth penalty and by Grayson's first, was in the circumstances comfortable enough for them to sit back and let the opposition make the running. On a dry day and in perfect conditions this might have been possible but not in the squelching turf yesterday. Passes went astray and were misdirected and, when on occasion Gloucester did get their act together, Nick Beal was a thoroughly composed and efficient presence at full-back.

Strange that, on a day made for the forwards and almost totally dominated by the packs, a full-back should have been the outstanding player.

Northampton: N Beal; C Moir, D Dantiacq, M Allen, J Sleightholme; A Hepher (P Grayson, 69), M Dawson (D Malone, 78); G Pagel, F Mendez, M Hynes, R Metcalfe, T Rodber (capt, J Phillips, 69), D Mackinnon, P Lam, B Pountney.

Gloucester: C Catling; A Lumsden, T Fanolua, R Tombs (capt), R Jewell; S Mannix, S Benton (I Sanders, 56); T Windo (T Woodman, 65), C Fortey, A Deacon, M Cornwell, R Fidler, S Ojomoh, S Devereux (N McCarthy, 37-47), N Carter.

Referee: C Reeks (Somerset)