Rugby Union: Friendless Newcastle keep the winning habit

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The Independent Online
Northampton 17

Newcastle 21

Newcastle are not in the least concerned that away from Kingston Park they win few friends. As long as they keep winning on their travels - especially games as tight as this - that suits them fine. They remain on top of the Allied Dunbar Premiership One and although Northampton did their damnedest to relieve them of their unbeaten league record, Newcastle survived a furious and prolonged late assault on their line - just as they did at Leicester - and deservedly prevailed.

Before Rob Andrew completed the scoring by kicking his third penalty, two minutes before time, a capacity Franklins Gardens crowd vented their disapproval at Newcastle's abrasive tactics which earned Dean Ryan a yellow card among a stream of penalties, four of which were kicked by Paul Grayson to give Saints a very handy 12-0 lead. From then on, Newcastle took the remainder of a physically draining, and at times brutally hard match 21- 5, without ever dominating it. They were only sure of victory until almost three minutes of injury time had elapsed.

It is worth remembering that Northampton were put through the mincer by the Newcastle forwards, and were outscored five tries to nil on Tyneside in October. Moreover Northampton, as recently as mid-November, were propping up the table along with Bristol and London Irish. Since then, Ian McGeechan, Saints' director of rugby has recruited the prop Garry Pagel who is now the fulcrum of their pack, if not the inspiration of a revival which had seen them climb to fourth.

The Springbok loose-head put Paul Van-Zandvliet through more loops and turns than you get in a knitting pattern. Added to Pagel's destructive scrummaging power is his influence in driving play which denied Newcastle the ball for long periods. But when Newcastle were in possession they used the ball intelligently as McGeechan was quick to acknowledge. "Newcastle didn't miss very much and they took all the points that were on offer," he said.

Andrew's contribution was worth considerably more than the 11 he kicked. His irresistible break and dummy sent Va'aiga Tuigamala over for a stunning try for which the outside-half added the conversion, and a penalty hauled Newcastle back into contention at 12-10.

James Naylor steamed over for a second try before Saints upped the temperature for their replacement hooker Chris Johnson in the left corner. Had Grayson's conversion not slid wide of the near post, Saints would have been back in front.

Instead it is Newcastle still in front. Though Tuigamala's rib injury probably rules him out for a month - which includes the Cup quarter-final here - while Matt Dawson went off with a bruised shoulder and is doubtful for England's squad in Paris at the weekend.

Northampton: Try Johnson; Penalties Grayson 4. Newcastle: Tries Naylor, Tuigamala; Conversion Andrew; Penalty Andrew 3.

Northampton: R Jackson; J Sleightholme, G Townsend, M Allen, H Thorneycroft; P Grayson, M Dawson (J Bramhall, 73); G Pagel, A Clarke (C Johnson, 56) M Stewart, J Phillips, J Chandler, G Seely, B Pountney, T Rodber (capt).

Newcastle: S Legg; J Naylor, V Tuigamala, A Tait, T Underwood; R Andrew, G Armstrong; N Popplewell, R Nesdale, P Van-Zandvliet, G Archer, D Weir, P Lam, R Arnold, D Ryan (capt).

Referee: J Pearson (Yarm).