Rugby Union: Lam rises above the occasion

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London Irish 10

Northampton 26

NEWCASTLE'S decision to release Pat Lam remains one of the great mysteries of the season. It can't just be the money. Sir John Hall doesn't need pounds 100,000 that badly. With Lam in the fold, Northampton are a different team and yesterday the Western Samoan No 8 was in his element.

London Irish, who enjoyed one of their finest moments in the midweek victory over Leicester at Sunbury, suffered a crushing anti-climax against another Midlands Premiership club. Foul conditions dictated the pattern of the game but to the credit of both teams, did not prevent it from being skilful, entertaining and generally hugely impressive. And at the heart of everything was Lam, a one-man demolition squad.

He revelled in the conditions, as did his pack, as did Matt Dawson. In a war of attrition, the Saints had the amphibious personnel carriers. Northampton, who chose to leave Paul Grayson on the bench, established an early lead through the replacement stand-off, Ali Hepher.

A clearance kick from Conor O'Shea was turned into attack by a quick throw-in and when Matt Jones slipped as he attempted to field the ball, Northampton drove towards the Irish line, and Lam, who seemed to be everywhere, sent Hepher over unopposed near the posts.

Niall Woods and Hepher exchanged penalties before the Exiles scored a try that would have been impressive on a fine day. Under the circumstances - pouring rain and driving wind - it was near miraculous. Brendan Venter made a half-break in midfield, Nick Burrows took play to the Northampton 22 before transferring with immaculate timing to Woods, who went over at the posts.

The Irish national selectors were due at Sunbury yesterday but missed their flight from Kerry. Woods would almost certainly have been one of the players pencilled in for attention from Donal Lenihan. Woods' conversion of his own try made the score 10-10 but in the 30th minute, the Saints drove from a line-out, with Lam again making ground, and Budge Pountney crashed over.

A saturated crowd of 2,560 anticipated a backlash in the second half, especially as the Saints had to play into the driving rain.

Instead the Irish, probably feeling the effects of their efforts against Leicester on Tuesday, were driven off the pitch in the 52nd minute, Northampton scored a try that their coach Ian McGeechan might want to produce as a Christmas present for his club's supporters. It was phenomenal. Northampton launched wave after wave, drive after drive, from deep in their own half and, with the remorseless move involving reverse passes from both Dawson and the magnificent Federico Mendez, the move was completed, inevitably, by that man Lam.

Northampton's third try extended their lead to 10 points and such was their second-half monopoly of obsession that they increased their advantage with further penalties from Hepher, despite the fact that one of them was kicked in the middle of a monsoon.

So far this season Dick Best has inspired impressive performances from the Irish without having the rub of the green but yesterday there was no crying into the black stuff.

Best's useful pack was driven to distraction, particularly by Lam, but reinforcements are on the way. Not only will the Exiles have their own Western Samoan No 8 Isaac Feaunati back before Christmas but also the long-awaited half-backs from the southern hemisphere Stephen Bachop and Kevin Putt.

London Irish: C O'Shea (capt); J Bishop, N Burrows, B Venter, N Woods; M Jones (J Brown, 52), K Campbell (P Richards, 52); M Worsley (R Hardwick, 75), R Kirke, C Fullman, N Harvey, M O'Kelly, J Boer, R Gallacher (K Spicer, 57), K Dawson.

Northampton: N Beal; C Moir, D Dantiacq (A Northey, 62), M Allen, J Sleightholme; A Hepher, M Dawson (capt), G Pagel, F Mendez, M Hynes, J Phillips, R Metcalfe, D Mackinnon (G Seely, 57), P Lam, B Pountney.

Referee: B Campsall (RFU).