Rugby Union: Fleetwood's backs rock their heavier hosts

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Old Northamptonians. . .12

Fleetwood. . . . . . . .17

BAGFORD VIPERS would have been appalled. Two sets of posts standing erect on the pitch, 15 players on each side, a spotless kit and not a pot belly worthy of the name. That's the Provincial Insurance Cup for you. Coarse rugby has been refined. The Dog and Duck is no longer the ultimate oasis, but Twickenham is.

Its barriers have also been redefined, as the No 15 from Littlehey Prison so memorably proved in one of the earlier rounds. His concept of the running full-back's role was significantly at odds with that of his keepers who, after the game, spent the next few weeks trying to recapture him.

No more away days for him, and sadly no more for Old Northamptonians in the competition this season. They were beaten fair and square in yesterday's quarter-final by Fleetwood whose rearguard action in the face of what appeared to be overwhelming odds up front was nothing short of heroic.

When the pace which scarcely slackened was at its hottest and it seemed that Old Northamptonians, playing down the slope in the second half, must surely capitalise on their massive forward advantage, it was the experience and expertise of the Fleetwood half-backs which carried the day.

John Wright, the Lancashire scrum-half, and Steve Burnage, who several seasons ago, in Fylde's colours, was the country's leading points scorer, took absolute command. Behind his retreating pack Wright remained in control, turning bad possession into good and allowing Burnage enough space to encourage his beleaguered forwards with shrewdly placed kicks to the far corners. His precise goal-kicking was even more important to Fleetwood as he landed three penalties and a marvellous drop goal from one of the few clean line-outs taken by his forwards.

If Old Northamptonians gave the impression of being the better side, perhaps Fleetwood were hungrier. They certainly had the better of the critical moments. Two minutes before half-time, with Old Northamptonians making light of the slope and leading 6-3, Fleetwood won a scrummage on their own 10-metre line. Dave Berry, a small but agile No 8, came off the back and fed winger Mark Wilkinson, who streaked off down the right touchline brushing aside tackles as he covered 55 yards to score in the corner.

Even so there seemed no reason for Old Northamptonians to panic. Their forwards had been so superior and their overall athleticism such that the two-point deficit was hardly unassailable. Moreover, they had in Andy Mather, their blind-side flanker, a player who looked in a different class from those around him.

But they made two crucial mistakes early in the second half. From the restart the ball went out on the full and Old Northamptonians immediately sacrificed positional advantage. A few minutes later they did the same thing from a drop-out on their own 22. Instead of having to defend in their own half, Fleetwood occupied the opposition's half and there they remained for most of the half.

Gradually Old Northamptonians were consumed by self-doubt, and by the ferocity and accuracy of Fleetwood's tackling. Phil Hanley and Andy Burman, were beginning to win some line-out ball, enough to keep Wright and Burnage supplied with the ammunition they needed. At 17-6 Fleetwood appeared to have done enough. But 11 minutes from time Steve James kicked his third penalty and 10 minutes later Richard Coulson dropped a goal. But then the final whistle blew and Fleetwood were through to a semi-final against Tredworth, and a mere 80 minutes from Twickenham.

Old Northamptonians: S Freestone; A Bull, S James, A Kevan, K Austin; R Coulson, A Gallone; T Davison, C Coulson, A Deramo, B Juffkins, B West, A Mather, N Young (capt), D Witty.

Fleetwood: M Hill; P Seed, S Fearn, A Crowther, M Wilkinson; S Burnage, J Wright; B Gawne, W Baxter (capt), M Pilkington, A Burman, P Hanley, P McVicar, D Berry, P Cook.

Referee: I Roberts (Warwickshire).

Scorers: Burnage (pen, 2 min, 0-3); James (pen, 13 min, 3-3); James (pen, 29 min, 6-3); Wilkinson (try, 38 min, 6-8); Burnage (pen, 52 min, 6-11); Burnage (drop goal, 57 min, 6-14); Burnage (pen, 67 min, 6- 17); James (pen, 69 min, 9-17); R Coulson (drop goal, 79 min, 12-17).

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