Rugby Union: Lynagh bewitches Saints

Northampton 13 Saracens 19
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The Independent Online
The unstoppable Saracens marauded into a plucky Northampton side to secure their position at the top of the table. Despite the narrowness of the winning margin, this side of multi-national talent never looked likely to blemish their unbeaten league record.

For much of a whirlwind of a game the Saints matched the Saracens for points, but never really for style, power or sheer class. At the end of it Northampton were left feeling low, and left uncomfortably low in the table.

It took Saracens the best part of an hour to shake Northampton off. For the first half, two penalties by the home side's scrum-half, Matt Dawson, against a try to the Londoners by Ryan Constable kept the game open.

But whatever the hopes in the home stands, it was hard to see how the Northampton backs were ever going to break through - particularly with their centre, Gregor Townsend, having a pig of a game. The Northampton, Scotland and Lions star had one of his mad days, opting to run the impossible and fluff the possible.

He also missed the crucial tackle that let Saracens break free in the shape of Michael Lynagh. The Australian was at his magical best, effortlessly eluding the mesmerised would-be tacklers. Besides his try, he kicked three penalties. But the damage was really done by the Saracens pack. Francois Pienaar was immense, yet no bigger than his back-row partners of Richard Hill and Tony Diprose.

Before the game, the Saints director of rugby, Ian McGeechan, said he wasn't going to tear up his season's game plan of playing stylish rugby. He was true to his word yet Northampton looked at their most effective - or rather least vulnerable - when they kept the ball tight and rolled mauls upfield. In the end, just such a play led to Saints' consolation try in the final minute when Craig Moir grounded the ball. Dawson kicked a conversion to add to his earlier two penalties. Northampton might draw some hope from the performance of the pack, particularly their new South African prop, Garry Pagel, who has brought the classic Boer virtues of brawn plus mobility to Franklins Gardens

It will not, however, be enough. Northampton are perilously near the bottom of the table. Saracens on the strength of this performance seem set for the top. Their problems are more likely to be if their millionaire backer Nigel Wray ever decided he didn't want to foot the huge pay bill. Ambitious plans demand ambitious cheques and Wray says at the moment he is happy. All the same, the question that stays in the mind is: can small English towns compete with big-city clubs and big-city bank balances?

Northampton: N Beal; H Thorneycroft, G Townsend (C Moir, 81), A Northey, E Cohen, P Grayson, M Dawson, G Johnson, M Stewart (M Volland, 71), J Phillips, M Bayfield (S Barnes, 81), G Seely, B Pountney, T Rodber (Capt).

Saracens: D Thompson (C Chesney, 29); M Singer, R Constable, S Ravenscroft, B Daniel, M Lynagh, K Bracken, B Reidy (A Olver, 65), G Botterman (G Chuter, 65), P Wallace, P Johns, D Grewcock, F Pienaar, R Hill, T Diprose (Capt).

Referee: Ed Morrison (Bristol).