Rugby Union: Mighty Morris stoops to conquer

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London. .20

North. . 24

THERE were no tickets on offer for England's trip to Lanzarote in the New Year, but it did not prevent London and the North from giving their all in the cause of the ADT Divisional Championship. After two anaemic displays, the North travelled to the capital with their kit bags stuffed with fresh supplies of courage and character.

'That was one of the hardest second halves I've ever played in,' Kevin Simms, the North captain, said. 'I didn't know what was worse, my legs or my lungs. I could hardly talk to the lads at the end.' Mike Slemen, the North coach, talked, inevitably, about personal pride. 'A few of our senior players had something to prove,' he said.

Dewi Morris, for one. Morris, his international place under threat from Steve Bates, spent the second half under siege, but he and his team-mates defended so heroically London were confined to one miserly penalty, the sum total of the scoring in the second half. Ultimately, it was a frustrating end to the championship for London and as long as certain key players refuse to have anything to do with it, its value to the England selectors will remain limited.

The absence of the England captain, Will Carling, in particular, was an embarrassment. At least Peter Winterbottom, another non-participant, lent moral support by turning up at The Stoop. 'I have nothing to prove to the selectors,' Winterbottom said. When London play New Zealand next year they will do so without Winterbottom, who intends to retire at the end of the season.

A recent game against Northampton and Wayne Shelford finally convinced Winterbottom that, at the age of 32, it was time to go. 'I had a little dig at Shelford,' Winterbottom said, 'and there was no response. Nothing. It was a bit sad. There was one of the great All Black forwards and he was playing past his prime. I thought to myself I do not want to end up like that. I want to go out when I can still play.'

The trouble is, the back-row warriors are growing old together. Mike Teague, Jon Hall and Mickey Skinner are all thirtysomethings although Skinner, typically, reckons he should be on the plane to Lanzarote. 'Against the South-West I played a lot better than Hall,' Skinner said. Since he moved from Harlequins to Blackheath, England appear to be working under the impression that Skinner's international days are numbered. He does not see it that way. 'The point about moving to Blackheath,' he said, 'was not to wind down. I wanted to give them some of my best seasons. Nobody can question my commitment.'

Skinner scored London's first try on Saturday, bursting from a line-out, and neither Tony Underwood nor Ian Hunter could stop him. That levelled the scores after Alan Brown - 'we've discovered a No 7,' according to Slemen - scored a soft try when Alan Buzza failed to kill the ball over his line. Paul Grayson, who used to play football for Accrington Stanley, is another find for the North. 'He's not played much rugby but he's very bright and he's got good skills,' Slemen said.

After Rob Andrew's break created a try for Damian Hopley, Grayson's goalkicking kept the North in front. Buzza made amends for his earlier aberration with a try- saving tackle on Rory Underwood, but the England wing scored a cracker just before half-time in a move instigated by Tim Rodber, who pinched the ball in a tackle.

Underwood's try gave the North a 24-17 lead, but there were few who fancied their chances of holding it in the face of a strong wind and driving rain. The weather, though, did not help London and their commitment to playing an expansive game in which they were encouraged by the impressive laissez faire performance of the French referee, Joel Dume. 'Two weeks running we've just missed out and that's a bitter pill to swallow,' Tony Jorden, the London coach, said.

London: Tries Skinner, Hopley; Conversions Andrew, Pilgrim; Penalties Andrew 2. North: Tries Brown, R Underwood; Conversion Grayson; Penalties Grayson 4.

LONDON: A Buzza; S Pilgrim, F Clough (Wasps), D Hopley (Cambridge University), D O'Leary (Saracens); R Andrew (capt), S Bates (Wasps); J Leonard, B Moore (Harlequins), J Probyn (Wasps), A Snow, R Langhorn (Harlequins), M Skinner (Blackheath), D Ryan (Wasps), J Cassell (Saracens).

NORTH: I Hunter (Northampton); T Underwood (Leicester), K Simms (Liverpool St Helens, capt), J Fletcher (Tynedale), R Underwood (Leicester); P Grayson (Waterloo), D Morris; M Hynes (Orrell), S Mitchell (West Hartlepool), M Whitcombe, D Baldwin (Sale), K Westgarth (West Hartlepool), M Greenwood (Wasps), T Rodber (Northampton), A Brown (West Hartlepool). Replacements: P Hackett (Waterloo) for Mitchell, 64; J Mallender (Sale) for Fletcher, 64.

Referee: J Dume (Bordeaux).