Rugby Union / Divisional Championship: London ponder casting problems: Impoverished North pipped at the whistle

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The Independent Online
North. . . 21

London. . .22

AS DRESS rehearsals go, this one must rank among the least convincing of recent years. With six days before they present their act to the All Blacks at Twickenham, London have serious casting problems.

In the front row and along a sparkling back line, London have an abundance of talent. Three played in the summer Test series in New Zealand; two others - Will Carling and Tony Underwood - were also in the Lions' party.

In all, London fielded 11 full internationals at Kingston Park, Newcastle, against a North team who, on any comparative basis, are considerably impoverished these days.

North are well aware of their shortcomings and the lack of international players within northern clubs. Two of their three, Tim Rodber and Ian Hunter, play their rugby out of the region, at Northampton. The third, Kevin Simms, their captain, won the last of his 15 caps almost six years ago.

Coupled with the drift south, which has robbed them of so many key players since they last triumphed in the Divisional Championship in 1987, it is hardly any wonder that the North have won only one of their most recent nine matches.

Nonetheless, the North, showing impressive mutual resolve and commitment, were, against all predictions, within five minutes of adding to their win total. Then London, still 21-15 adrift, raised themselves for one final assault to prevent the embarrassment of defeat as they prepare for the tourists.

Victory for London was achieved at the last gasp; but it was no triumph. At the core of their difficulties was an ineffective back five, who were comprehensively out-played by the northern quintet, for whom Rodber was a standard-bearer.

With England's coach, Dick Best, an onlooker, Rodber did his chances of playing for England when the Blacks return to Twickenham on 27 November no harm at all with a towering display. If Neil Back is not to be England's choice for the No 7 shirt, then Rodber looks the most obvious alternative.

London have delayed announcing their team for Saturday, while they perhaps consider the inclusion of Canada's Norm Hadley - now serving his eligibility stint with Wasps - and Australia's Harlequin, Troy Coker. At least this would guarantee them some line-out ball and tighten up their scrummage against New Zealand.

As London's coach, Tony Jorden, said, 'Half our game was on a descending slope. We know our line-out was poor, and we cannot afford to be like this against New Zealand.'

North: Tries Mallinder, Fielden; Conversion Grayson; Penalty Grayson; Drop goals Grayson 2.

London: Tries Underwood, Carling, Hopley; Conversions Andrew 2; Penalty Andrew.

NORTH: I Hunter (Northampton); J Sleightholme (Wakefield), M Fielden (Northampton), K Simms (Liverpool St Helens, capt), J Mallinder (Sale); P Grayson (Northampton), D Scully (Wakefield); M Hynes, G French (Orrell), S McMain (Sheffield), J Dixon (West Hartlepool), D Baldwin (Sale), T Rodber (Northampton), N Ashurst (Orrell), A Macfarlane (Sale).

LONDON: H Davies (Wasps); T Underwood (Leicester), W Carling (Harlequins), D Hopley (Wasps), D O'Leary (Harlequins); R Andrew (capt), S Bates (Wasps); J Leonard, B Moore (Harlequins), J Probyn (Wasps), A Snow, R Langhorn (Harlequins), M Greenwood, L Dallaglio, D Ryan (Wasps).

Referee: E Murray (Greenock).