Rugby Union: Dawson delays the inevitable

Northampton 40 Bath 17
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AT THE end of a season in which Northampton have not been renowned for their hospitality to opponents, least of all to their keenest rivals, they were hardly likely to present the Premiership title prematurely to Leicester by tame surrender at Franklins Gardens yesterday. If the Tigers really want this title then, by heaven, they will have to do it by their own efforts and not through Northampton's inadequacy. Strange then, that the tension which hung heavily over the proceedings should have got, not to Northampton, but to Bath, whose adversarial attitude and indiscipline cost them dear.

The more Bath fumed the more Northampton became focused on the job and, despite frequent outbursts of carelessness behind the scrum, there was never any doubt about the eventual winners. Bath's attitude of "they shall not pass" was admirable if misplaced. As the Northampton players emerged from the tunnel at the start of the match they were confronted by the Bath forwards, arms linked and snarling. It was as confrontational as it was unnecessary and rather lost its impact when Mike Catt's kick off barely reached the 10-metre line.

Northampton went into offensive mode from that moment, charging forward and, had Alastair Hepher not skewed a penalty wide, they would have been in the lead before the stragglers had taken their seats in the stands. Hepher did convert a couple of penalties before the first quarter had run its course and Northampton had blown at least as many scoring opportunities through the inaccuracy of their passing, most glaringly after Catt had been buried inside his 22 and Northampton had made the most awful hash of moving the ball to the left wing.

Bath at this stage were, by and large, playing the game by the rule book and on the rare occasions when they were given air by Northampton's suffocating forward force, they were poking holes in the opposition defence. Iain Balshaw's speed was proving hard to contain, as was Adedayo Adebayo's persistence. After a misdirected Bath pass had unhinged Northampton's offensive alignment Adebayo crashed on to Catt's pass before releasing Mike Tindall for the try.

It was hereabouts that Bath lost their cool and at least two pages out of the law book. Matt Perry failed to act decisively with Hepher's wickedly bouncing kick and try as they did to cock things up through a combination of careless passing and poor decision making, Northampton still managed to score, Grant Seeley, an industrious No 8, crossing for the first of his two tries. Tempers now began to fray and fists were pounding like pistons at the rucks and mauls. Both Matt Stewart and Victor Ubogu were summoned for one to ones with the referee. Bath lost out time after time by conceding a stream of penalties, their frustration manifesting itself in a variety of ways. Dan Lyle's cross-field pass in the style but not the quality of an American quarter-back was so askew that it nearly halved Paul Balshaw and even their exit from the field was an undignified shambles, the two sides jostling their way into the tunnel.

By this time Matt Dawson had taken over the kicking duties from Hepher and was drawing gasps of admiration from the crowd at the prodigious distances he was booting the ball and by his unerring accuracy. Having converted Seely's try and having kicked the first of his two penalties before half- time that was to play an increasingly significant role in the second half. First he ran from the base of the scrum to set up Seely's second try and then broke through Bath's midfield to set up Budge Pountney for the score. With the conversion of Federico Mendez's try, easily the most pleasing moment of the afternoon for the home crowd, Dawson finished with 14 points and might have felt worthy of the Man of the Match award which went instead to Mendez. No one in the crowd was going to begrudge Northampton's most popular figure that honour.

Bath's crumbs of comfort from a relentlessly uncomfortable afternoon came from tries by Catt and the replacement flanker Russell Earnshaw who, in keeping with the unevenness of Bath's performance, was, minutes later, despatched to the sin-bin. This will be seen as a serious set-back to the progress Bath have been making in recent weeks and not only raises question marks about the ability of some of the players but also about their temperaments. For Northampton, hopes of the title remain alive, at least until this afternoon.

Northampton: N Beal; C Moir, A Northey, M Allen, B Cohen; A Hepher (D Malone, 30-36, 60), M Dawson; G Pagel, F Mendez (C Johnson, 80), M Stewart (M Volland, 74), J Phillips, T Rodber (capt), P Lam, B Pountney, G Seely.

Bath: M Perry; I Balshaw, K Maggs, M Tindall, A Adebayo; M Catt (T Adebayo, 74), G Cooper; D Hilton (K Yates, 64), M Regan, V Ubogu, M Haag, S Borthwick, N Thomas, R Webster (capt), D Lyle.

Referee: C White (RFU)