Rugby Union: North hit the right note a couple of games too late

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London. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .20

North . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .24

A TOURNAMENT which had already been stripped of its raison d'etre with the announcement of the England squad last Monday, hardly merited the commitment and skill displayed by both sides at the Stoop Memorial Ground yesterday. A first half in which there were more points than minutes and which contained play of almost continuous movement, would have been hard to follow.

Sure enough, as the weather deteriorated, there were a mere three points scored in the second period, but it was none the less compelling for all that.

In what was an immensely enjoyable demonstration of free- range rugby, the referee, the Frenchman Joel Dume, played his full part. He was wholly attuned to the mood and philosophy of both teams. It was Dume who, you may recall, had been in charge of the most entertaining game of the season so far between England B and the South Africans at Bristol last month. His performance yesterday will have won him many more admirers.

For supporters of the North there remains the mystery of how their side could have performed so wretchedly for the two weeks which mattered and yet have played like angels on the one occasion which did not. One of the reasons could be that London's style of play, loose and fluid, suited a side which lacked both power in the scrummage and height in the line-out. On the day, however, the North overcame both.

Against a freshening breeze in the first half London ran almost everything and, what is more, did so with a precision, confidence and understanding that produced two tries both of which also owed something to poor North defence. The fact that London, despite their superior skills in the open, were seven points behind at the interval, was in no small part due to Paul Grayson, who may not yet possess the polished skills of the finished product but can nevertheless clout the ball harder and further than most. He kicked four penalties and the conversion of Alan Brown's try scored within 35 seconds of the kick-off. Damian Hopley had been collared by John Fletcher in midfield and the North fly-hacked up to London's line. With both Pilgrim and Buzza back to defend, there appeared to be no danger, but the ball somehow eluded both and Brown was up to score the try.

From that point until half-time the longest gap without a score was seven minutes. From a line- out well won by Alex Snow, Micky Skinner burst clean through North's crumbling defence to score under the posts. Four penalties followed in quick succession, three to Grayson, one to Andrew, before the latter, who had already made one scorching break, cut neatly inside close to the ruck to score London's second try.

But as the half drew to its close, so the North regained their poise and confidence. Grayson kicked his fourth penalty and Rory Underwood, who had earlier been flattened by a glorious Alan Buzza tackle and stopped, seconds before, by Steve Pilgrim, squeezed over in the corner to give the North a seven-point buffer against the wind and London's renewed assault in the second half.

The one thing the North could ill afford were defensive lapses of the sort which had leaked the two first-half tries. As it turned out, their defensive organisation throughout the second half was of an altogether higher standard as London mounted a series of attacks which, on a number of occasions, took them within inches of the opposition line. Tim Rodber was conspicuously involved in many of the most heroic of the North's rearguard actions, and Alan Brown was not far behind. Against this Scrooge-like defence London were permitted only one score, a penalty by Rob Andrew. They pressed hard for more but not for the first time were undone by their own indiscipline. Two penalties conceded in attacking positions, two vital defensive line- outs taken by Dave Baldwin and Kevin Westgarth, and the North had broken their duck.

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 (W Hartlepool), M Greenwood (Wasps), T Rodber (Northampton), A Brown (W Hartlepool). Replacements: P Hackett (Waterloo) for Mitchell, 64; J Mallender (Sale) for Fletcher, 64.

Referee: J Dume (Bordeaux).

Scorers: Brown/Grayson (try/con, 35sec, 0-7); Skinner/Andrew (try/con, 7 min, 7-7); Grayson (pen, 12 min, 7-10); Andrew (pen, 19 min, 10-10); Grayson (pen, 21 min, 10-13); Grayson (pen, 25 min, 10-16); Andrew/Pilgrim (try/con, 29 min 17- 16); Grayson (pen, 33 min, 17-19); R Underwood (try, 35 min, 17-24); Andrew (pen, 73 min 20-24).