Rugby Union: Grayson plays the complete hero

Northampton 17 Newcastle 7
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The Independent Online
RUGBY, as it was demonstrated yesterday, is seriously damaging to the health. Not only was this a cup tie of unremitting physical intensity, it would have frayed the nerves of even the most neutral observer.

Northampton, successfully reversing the two League defeats inflicted on them by Newcastle, were, despite the 10-point difference, winners by the narrowest of margins, in that they had to withstand a ferocious late onslaught before Paul Grayson, now close to being the complete fly-half, dropped his second goal in the third minute of injury-time.

His performance alone was worthy of a place in the last four of the Tetley's Bitter Cup and if Newcastle felt they had grounds for complaint, they had few sympathisers in the capacity crowd at Franklins Gardens.

That they are often unloved and unappreciated is largely of their own making. They are an abrasive side whose awesome power and devoted teamwork is too often undone by spiteful niggling. Even in a moment of triumph, they find the temptation to provoke irresistible and when Dean Ryan broke clear to score their try his taunting of his pursuers was petty and unnecessary.

Newcastle had the wind in their favour and the edge in the scrummage throughout the first half, but they were greatly aided by the fact that Tim Rodber was anonymous for most of that time and by Gregor Townsend's continuing wretched form. Throughout the afternoon, Vai'ga Tuigamala gave the Scottish international a roasting, intercepting his passes and stretching him to breaking point in defence. Rodber at least recovered, storming forward at the head of his troops in the second half and finishing the match second only to Grayson in importance.

Northampton made so many last-ditch tackles, including one by Rodber on Tuigamala that may well have turned the course of the match, that they had countless heroes. Matt Dawson's tackle on Gary Armstrong on the line was as crucial as Matt Allen's devouring bear-hug on Tony Underwood, who had scorched through a gap from Rob Andrew's pass only to fall short of the line by half a yard.

Northampton's ability to work for eachother was the decisive factor. They were tireless in their pursuit of the enemy and, if occasionally they allowed Newcastle's runners a little too much room, they always managed to nail them in the nick of time. No-one did more honest grafting than the lock forward, Jason Chandler. Not only did he have an immense game in the tight but he popped up on the wing to set up Northampton's try midway through the second half, feeding Ian Hunter - following a blind- side break by Grayson - who put Matt Allen over in the corner.

Grayson's conversion attempt from the touchline rebounded off the post. It was the fly-half's only error. He controlled play with flawless decision- making and timing. He harnessed the wind to maximum effect in the second half, propelling the ball downfield into the untenanted corners. In the first half he had kicked two penalties, the second a minute before half- time when Northampton were beginning to wobble. At this stage they were recklessly conceding hard-won possession at vital times.

There had been more than a hint of carelessness by Northampton when Newcastle scored their try, Ryan being granted a free run after profiting from a turnover. But Northampton had clearly taken on-board their half-time instructions. They tightened their game and their ball carriers, so often isolated in the first half, ran with greater purpose and direction. Grayson dropped a goal from an advancing platform and eight minutes later Allen scored the try which extended Northampton's lead to seven points.

Newcastle's response was predictable. They increased the pace and ferocity of their attacks, although their anxiety was betrayed in moments of indiscipline. Paul Van-Zandvliet was shown a yellow card and after Newcastle had been penalised on the Northampton line, Grayson sent the ball spiralling into the opposition half. From there he dropped the goal to seal the match and his side's place in the last four. In the best traditions of cup casualties, Newcastle'sresponse was to welcome the fact that they could now concentrate on winning the League.

Northampton: I Hunter; J Sleightholme, G Townsend (A Northey, 76), M Allen, H Thorneycroft; P Grayson, M Dawson; G Pagel, A Clarke (C Johnson, 73), M Stewart, J Phillips, J Chandler, G Seely, T Rodber (capt), B Poutney.

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, D Ryan (capt), R Arnold.

Referee: S Lander (Liverpool)