Rugby Union Commentary: Beal has Bath on back foot: Saints have an answer

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The Independent Online
VEN after beating Bath, Northampton are trying to kid us about their champion potential. Too many people saying too many nice things about them - they are Saints, after all - was giving them an inflated idea of their own worth, and it was only when they were expected to lose that they at last played as everyone had imagined they could.

The upshot, an exhilarating 11-8 win at Franklin's Gardens, was greeted with near-hysteria by an adoring public who have turned this formerly sedate old ground into a Saturday afternoon bearpit. The shoe-making town is, in its sporting preference, a rugby town and 7,000 were there to see the Saints play Bath, compared with the 2,000 or so who attend the Football League club on the other side of town.

Put into the context of recent events, it was an extraordinary result. A week in rugby is evidently an eternity because the previous Saturday Northampton had lost at London Irish, a defeat put into less damning perspective by the Exiles' subsequent win at Orrell but bad enough at the time to induce incredulity. In fact Saints had already limped rather than marched to their earlier wins over Bristol and Saracens, so they had probably had it coming.

'We have been victims of other people's expectations,' Barrie Corless, the coaching director who has presided over the Saints' four- year revival from Second Division relegation candidates to title contenders, said. Alas for Corless, those expectations will be even higher now that they have turned the narrow defeats of Bath's previous two visits into narrow victory. Put it down to experience.

Northampton built a first-half lead through John Steele's two penalties and Nick Beal's kick-and-chase try and then defended it heroically. Stuart Barnes pulled back a penalty and Ben Clarke thundered away for a try, but ultimately Northampton would even have augmented their lead had they taken their penalty chances.

'Bath have been and still are the leading light in the league and to beat them is an extremely satisfying experience,' John Olver, their captain, purred. 'Even more satisfying is that we were very, very positive.' On the subject of title aspirations, which Olver has been resolutely downplaying, he preferred to make no comment - a policy referees might like him to follow on the field. (Only joking, John.)

In fact Corless believes it will not be until next season that his side make a serious challenge, which sounds like false modesty when you realise that Northampton finished last season only a point behind Bath. On Saturday they moved the ball at every opportunity, and won enough of it to make this a frequent occurrence. If their try was tinged with fortune - the suspicion of a knock-on as a sweeping Bath move broke down - Bath would be bound to agree that you make your own luck.

It was at precisely this stage of last season, their third league match, that Bath lost to Orrell. Individual defeats assume disproportionate significance in a competition of 12 fixtures but their response then, as it will be now, was simply to make sure they did not lose again. 'It's just like last year. It's back to cup rugby for us: every match is a cup game,' Andy Robinson, the Bath captain, said.

To achieve this, Bath will take a deep draught of that famous collective spirit and sit down together this week for an 'honesty session' in which individuals - like Gareth Chilcott, whose late tackle on Steele gave Northampton their second penalty - will be expected to own up to their part in this defeat.

'Every player has been asked to look at what happened, come up with a positive reaction and be honest about his performance.' Robinson said. 'Rugby is a serious business for us and with the players we've got we shouldn't lose. Players have to hold their hands up and admit their fault.' And atone by beating Orrell in 12 days' time.

The fault for the Northampton try lay in the fact that after stringing six passes together during a glorious piece of counter-attacking, Bath (or, more specifically, Steve Ojomoh) could not manage a seventh. The ball fell to ground, Ian Hunter may or may not have knocked on, Beal twice hacked on and won the race against Philip de Glanville. It was a 12-point try: seven points in prospect for Bath at the clubhouse end turned in a trice into five for Northampton at the St James end.

As is their wont, Bath pulled themselves round and did most of the attacking for the 50 minutes that remained. One try, though, was an inadequate return - reflective of Bath's inability this season to hold their form throughout a game. Still, the try was a masterpiece of offensive defence: when Rob MacNaughton was isolated and dispossessed, Hill, de Glanville, Guscott and finally Clarke formed an irresistible combination.

That such inspiration did not recur was due as much to Bath's strange fallibility as to Saints' defensive intransigence. 'Our silly errors, giving away too many penalties, have been our problem over the years and it's caught up with us,' Robinson said, before returning to post-match mourning. 'Losing one of these league matches,' he added, 'is like losing one of your family.'

Northampton: Try Beal; Penalties Steele 2. Bath: Try Clarke; Penalty Barnes.

Northampton: I Hunter; N Beal, F Packman, R MacNaughton, H Thorneycroft; J Steele (D Elkington, 70), M Dawson; G Baldwin, J Olver (capt), C Allen, T Rodber, J Etheridge, P Walton, W Shelford, R Tebbutt.

Bath: J Webb; A Swift, J Guscott, P de Glanville, A Adebayo; S Barnes, R Hill; G Chilcott, G Dawe, V Ubogu, M Haag, S O'Leary, S Ojomoh, B Clarke, A Robinson (capt).

Referee: F Howard (St Helens).

(Photograph omitted)

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