Rugby Union: Grayson finds the right formula

Northampton 31 Bedford 26
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For The first quarter of this Tetley's Bitter Cup tie Bedford, the clear leaders of the Second Division, appeared to have ideas above their station. With a superior line-out and the deftness of touch of their half-back pairing of Paul Turner and Simon Crabb, they were in almost total charge. But once Northampton discovered the rolling maul in the first half and their confidence in the second there was scarcely a peep out of their opponents until injury time when, incredibly, Bedford scored 14 points in three minutes.

It was, in truth, a hugely distorted margin of defeat and as a measure of Bedford's improvement during the past 12 months was flattering in the extreme. They would do well not to read too much into it because throughout the second half Northampton were so far and away the better side that they completely eclipsed Bedford.

They also made light of the dreadful conditions on a mudflat from which 15,000 gallons of water had been pumped before the kick off. But by committing half the number of players to the rucks and mauls and by recycling the ball at twice the speed, Northampton tore Bedford's defence apart. At the heart of this hatchet job was Paul Grayson who, in the past couple of months, has been playing with increasing composure and authority. There can no longer be any doubt about Northampton's best midfield combination. It is Grayson at fly-half with Gregor Townsend alongside him in the centre. On a number of occasions the two combined beautifully and twice set up tries in the second half.

It was all so different to the pattern in the first half when Northampton became bogged down more as a consequence of their own lethargy than the state of the pitch. Their forwards seemed reluctant to become embroiled in the grubby business of the basic chores and their line-out jumpers, even on their own ball, were coming second to Scott Murray and Shaun Platford. Furthermore, Jon Bell was looking distinctly out of place at full-back and with Bedford exploiting this frailty there was a very good case for moving Grayson to take over. But Northampton kept faith with their formation and it was as well that they did given Grayson's influence on the outcome.

It was, nevertheless, an awkward period for Northampton. Crabb was proving a handful with a number of astutely placed kicks into space and several darting runs - one of which created mayhem around the fringe of the Northampton ruck and opened up a yawning gap for Roy Winters to score the first try of the match.

Turner, at the age of 39, was also profiting at this stage from the time and space he was being afforded and was displaying the exquisite little touches of which he is the master. If he was cut down to size and made to look his age in the second half he is still a class act, although his days in the top flight, one suspects, are numbered.

It wasn't until half an hour into the match that Northampton began to exert some measure of control. By then they had made a major tactical switch, moving the ball forward in a series of churning mauls. Garry Pagel, the irresistible South African prop, ploughed over from a line-out on the Bedford line and then, in the slipstream of another impressive forward drive, Grayson, with a neat shimmy, made just enough space for Townsend to score.

These scores provided Northampton with the charge they needed. They also had a gravely damaging effect on Bedford's morale. Within four minutes of the restart Matt Allen scored the try of the match after Townsend had twice made ground with lightning breaks.

Although Junior Paramore scored the first of his two tries three minutes later it was merely a temporary hitch in Northampton's inevitable progress into the fifth round. Grayson, with an outrageously obvious dummy set up the simplest of tries following another fine passage of play for Jon Sleightholme to touch down for Northampton's fifth. If there is irritation at the way in which they allowed Bedford to score two tries through Matt Deans and Paramore at the death there can be not the slightest doubt that Northampton were the clear and worthy victors.

Northampton: J Bell; J Sleightholme, G Townsend, M Allen (I Hunter, 74), H Thorneycroft; P Grayson, J Bramhall; G Pagel, C Johnson, M Stewart, J Phillips, J Chandler, D Mackinnon, T Rodber (capt) (G Seely, 40), B Pountney.

Bedford: M Rayer; J Wells, A Murdoch (capt), M Petchey, R Underwood; P Turner, S Crabb; N Hatley, J Richards, D Hinkins, S Murray, S Platford (R Straeuli, 50), R Winters, J Paramore, J Forster (M Deans, 64).

Referee: C White (Manchester).