Rugby Union: Lam shines alone for slipshod Saints

Northampton 21 Neath 12
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The Independent Online
FROM THE sixth minute of this low quality contest it was patently obvious that Northampton knew they had the winning of it. The crowd had reached the same conclusion six minutes earlier - when Neath took the field. The days when the Neath pack used to terrorise all-comers have long gone. Their forwards nowadays are midgets by comparison, both in stature and reputation, and against opponents as muscular as Northampton they had little chance.

Their two props, one standing on top of the other, still would not have reached Richard Metcalfe's collarbone and their opposite numbers yesterday, Garry Pagel and Martin Scelzo, were positively salivating at the prospect of getting to grips with them. That Neath remained in touch for so long says much for their spirit and for Robbie Jones's ability to feed the ball straight into the back row, unchecked by the Irish referee, Bertie Smith.

But back to the sixth minute. Having conceded a penalty, kicked by Matt Pearce in the first minute, Northampton were awarded a penalty just outside the Neath 22 and in an enticingly kickable position. The ball was with Paul Grayson but, after a quick word with his skipper Pat Lam, the fly- half kicked for the corner. Nothing came of Northampton's possession from the line-out but the very fact that they had declined three certain points was a measure of their confidence and a clue as to how they intended to win the game. The softening-up process continued with a series of punishing scrums and pulverising drives from the line-out, denying Neath all but the smallest crumbs of possession.

Neath won a paltry five line-outs in the entire match, and were unable to gain possession from their three first-half throw-ins. Furthermore, in their efforts to keep Northampton out they conceded 14 penalties in this period, Grayson choosing to kick two and using the others to set up promising attacking positions for his pack.

Northampton's first try came, almost inevitably, from a scrummage pushover and although Metcalfe arose from the debris with the ball, it was Lam who was credited with the try. That was fair enough because Lam had been, by a country mile, the most penetrative player on the field and, despite the possession which flowed the way of the Northampton backs, he remained in a class apart as a runner. Good though he is, this is hardly a compliment to the Saints backs, who are simply not good enough as an attacking force.

Without the corrosive power of the pack Northampton have little to offer and, when the forwards start to misfire, as happened throughout the second half, they are in trouble. It was ludicrous that with such an abundance of possession, Northampton should have been a mere six points ahead going into the final quarter.

Northampton's second try was scored by Simon Holmes following Metcalfe's clean line-out take and a concerted drive to the Neath line. The position had been set up by Grayson's mighty penalty kick from inside his own half but, overall, the fly-half was well below his best. He missed with three kicks at goal, a penalty, conversion and drop, and seldom had the confidence to move the ball wide. When he did his passing lacked sharpness and accuracy.

With a comfortable cushion of 12 points midway through the first half, Northampton appeared to be coasting. Perhaps the ease with which they had scored their points induced complacency. But Pearce, with a drop goal and a penalty, kept Neath in the game.

Grayson kicked his second penalty before half-time, giving Northampton the prospect of a second-half cashing in on their dominance in the first. It did not happen. Inexplicably, the Saints scrummage began to fade and Neath, sharper and unquestionably swifter in the backs, began to make room for their quicksilver winger Shane Williams. He escaped on a number of occasions but sadly outstripped his support and too often found himself isolated.

Pearce kicked his third penalty within two minutes of the restart and six points were all that separated the sides until Grayson converted his third penalty after Shaun van Rensberg was penalised a shade harshly for a late tackle on Ben Cohen. Rough justice perhaps, following Mr Smith's failure a few minutes earlier to spot some sly jersey pulling as Allan Bateman went charging through on a deftly placed kick.

Northampton continued on their slipshod way, spilling passes, spurning chances and generally making life difficult for themselves. Lam remained in a class of his own, the sole Northampton player capable of breaking through and lifting the monotony. A beautifully balanced run took him to within a inch or two of the Neath line but when the final whistle blew it was Neath who were hammering away at Northampton's line. A win but little satisfaction.

Northampton: N Beal; J Sleightholme, A Bateman, M Allen, B Cohen; P Grayson, I Vass; G Pagel, S Walter (C Johnson, 60), M Scelzo, J Phillips, R Metcalfe, T Rodber (D Mackinnon, 78), P Lam (capt), S Holmes.

Neath: G John; S Williams, D Tieuti, T Davies, M Singer; M Pearce (C Rees, 80), R Jones; D Jones ( L Gerard, 70), M Davies, A Millward, M Turner (A Codling, 53), A Jackson, S Van Rensberg, R Phillips (capt), B Sinkinson .

Referee: B Smith (Irl).