Rugby Union Commentary: Saints have good cause to regret loss of Corless: Gloucester make the right moves to reach cup quarter-finals

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The Independent Online
WHEN Barrie Corless says this is the year when Northampton were supposed to be winning things, there is an unbearable poignancy - unbearable for those he has left behind at Franklin's Gardens.

Even more so when it is Gloucester who knock Northampton out of the Pilkington Cup, because it is here that Corless turned when he deemed his former employers' offer to renew his contract unsatisfactory. After five years as director of coaching there, he now has five years minimum as director of rugby at Kingsholm.

On the most recent evidence, he has made the right decision. Gloucester began to put behind them a wretched start to the season when they beat his old boys 19-14 in November. Saturday's repeat, 11-6 this time to move into today's Pilkington quarter-final draw at Twickenham, brought the subsequent run to nine wins from 11 games.

This at least is stability, as well as fulfilling one of the few specific aims Corless set when he took the job: a last-eight cup place. More important though, as it was when he set out at Northampton in 1988, is the long term - which for Gloucester means maximising the vast well of rugby talent that exists in a rugby-mad city and beyond.

Hence the inauguration of a full- time Under-21 team next season and the zeal with which Corless has been cutting through the parochial jealousies of the clubs within the powerful Gloucester Combination. 'If I can get the structure working more efficiently, we could rule the roost for years,' he said.

He might once have said something similar about Northampton, where he was installed after the old committee who had presided over a great club's decline were ejected by the membership. Northampton would by then have been relegated from the Second Division had there been relegation at the time, but in two seasons they were promoted and reached a cup semi-final.

A final appearance in 1991, third place in the league a point behind the top two in 1992, and fourth last season followed. Now this. No Corless, no style, no longer any cup aspirations and for now no hope beyond safety even in the league. Northampton stand one place above the First Division relegation zone, but London Irish have two games in hand in which to eradicate their two-point deficit.

Gloom and doom? Not quite. Northampton ostensibly have one of the most gifted squads in the land, but an endless series of injuries - now that Martin Bayfield is back, Tim Rodber and John Olver are out - and plummeting confidence have made the heady day when they were beating Leicester at the start of the season seem like a mirage.

'We've got internationals and A internationals all over the place, but we still haven't got everyone working together,' Bayfield said after Saturday's baleful events. Recovered from his neck injury, PC Lofty led the pack and won line-out possession commensurate with an England lock who stands 6ft 10in. So there was no shortage of the ball, even if the Northampton scrum has turned into an ever-deepening mess of collapses and niggles.

But neither was there any pattern to the Saints' play, or rather none that was not utterly predictable. The sight of centres with as much to offer as John Fletcher and Mike Fielden obsessively hammering back into the forwards was redolent more of Gloucester tradition than how Northampton tell us they want to play. One or other would take the ball where they fondly imagined would be strength and when it came back again there would be the dropped Scotland lock, Neil Edwards, to return it whence it had just emerged.

Corless for one was astounded at the disjointedness of the Northampton performance, though it could be seen as an improvement after the beatings by Bath and Leicester over the preceding fortnight. 'There were times during the game when we had the feeling it was going to come back, but we are still making too many basic errors and standing back and letting the opposition come at us,' Bayfield said.

He added that there was no despondency, and certainly Northampton are too good to go down - or at any rate everyone, not least their injured captain, Olver, agrees they ought to be. 'We've got to get some pattern in our play,' he chided.

Eventually they did try something different, though as Gloucester's captain, Ian Smith, heard John Steele, standing in for Olver, announcing his intention to spread it wide, it was almost as telegraphed as the crash-ball fixation had been. But it did belatedly show that it was possible and that Nick Beal and Kevin Morgan, wings of quality, had been woefully underused.

According to reputation, wings - being flighty - are not creatures that figure prominently in Gloucester strategies either. But Corless wants to change this and so many other things at Kingsholm and it is, put in a historical context, remarkable to relate that Gloucester's handling and general sense of movement were by far the more inventive and varied.

Indeed the try that won the tie came on the wing, Don Caskie chipping a wicked kick which bounced conveniently off Paul Holford's knee and away from the straining Edwards for Holford to score. Two penalties from seven by Tim Smith made up the Gloucester score. For Northampton, Paul Grayson landed one from six shared with Steele, who had dropped an early goal.

Caskie was later concussed, though thankfully no worse than that despite the alarm caused by being carried off on a stretcher. Grayson had gone on in the 13th minute when a hamstring twinged in training during the week put paid to Ian Hunter. Which makes you wonder why he was playing in the first place.

Gloucester: Try Holford; Penalties T Smith 2. Northampton: Penalty Grayson; Drop goal Steele.

Gloucester: T Smith; P Holford, S Morris, D Caskie (I Morgan, 65), M Nicholson; D Cummins, B Fenley; A Windo, J Hawker, A Deacon, S Devereux, R West, P Glanville, D Sims, I Smith (capt).

Northampton: I Hunter (P Grayson, 12); K Morgan, M Fielden, J Fletcher, N Beal; J Steele (capt), M Dawson; G Baldwin, A Clarke, G Pearce, N Edwards, M Bayfield, P Walton, M Steffert, C Millhouse.

Referee: K Ricketts (Portsmouth).

(Photograph omitted)

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