Rugby Union: Northampton 15 Leicester 22 - Saints coach defen ds sinner Johnson

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The Independent Online
AT REGULAR intervals during Saturday's tumultuous contest at Franklin's Gardens, Dean Richards could be seen scribbling furiously into the palm of his left hand. Given that England's most revered rugby folk hero possesses paws the size of Leicestershire, he could have been writing pretty much anything - a Tolstoyan epic of life in the East Midlands or, more ambitious still, a chronological account of Martin Johnson's recent disciplinary problems. Whatever his subject matter at the weekend, he will soon be sitting down to pen his triumphal address.

It was the day the fat lady of the Allied Dunbar Premiership stopped singing, even though her bawdy alehouse aria was originally scheduled to last well into the merry month of May. It was the day Northampton - and, 120 or so miles to the north-west, Saracens - saw the lights go out on their title ambitions. Most emphatically of all, it was the day Leicester underlined their domestic supremacy with a performance of such iron resolve that the only legitimate response was one of deference and respect.

In his capacity as team manager, Richards felt compelled to offer the usual platitudes in the aftermath of victory: "No, it's not all over... Yes, we'll still take it one game at a time... Look, Newcastle are always hard work up there and Wasps are playing better than anyone... Since when have Bath been easy meat on their own ground..?" But in his capacity as one of the Tiger-striped boys, the old curmudgeon will have let it rip on the boozy return trip up the M1. Seven points needed from a possible 12, with a home game against the whipping boys of West Hartlepool to come? Those are the mathematics of the inevitable.

Talking of inevitabilities, rugby simply would not be the game we know and love without a Johnson "incident". The system works along these lines: the best tight forward in Europe - in the absence of the injured John Eales, you can change "Europe" to "world" - goes steaming into a ruck or maul, in accordance with his role in life; the referee, fully aware of his part in this ridiculous pageant, promptly flicks a coloured card from his pocket (white for Premiership games, yellow for anything else); the broadcasters and press men go into one of their collective frenzies, instantly transforming a molehill into something the size of K2; the referee then issues a half-apology, agreeing that he might have been too quick on the draw; and, hey presto, everyone is happy. Everyone, that is, except Johnson, who must be sick to the back teeth of it all.

Saturday's instalment of this long-running serial was every bit as Pythonesque as those recently performed at Lansdowne Road and the Madejski Stadium. Four points adrift at 8-12 with 16 minutes left on the clock, Jamie Hamilton and Darren Garforth led a Leicester drive for the Northampton line.

Over the top came the home forwards - one, two, three of them - and killed the ball stone dead. Johnson, thundering upfield as he had done all afternoon, placed an almost apologetic boot on the rump of one of the sinning Saints and was promptly packed off to the sin-bin by David McHugh, the Irish referee who had whistled the life from the Calcutta Cup match three weeks previously.

If Johnson could scarcely believe his misfortune - "I stood on a guy lying on the wrong side of a ruck and, quite honestly, I didn't expect to get binned for something that was no better or worse than four or five similar incidents in the game" - Richards took up the cudgels by claiming that his captain was being "singled out". Interestingly enough, the sharpest criticism of the current witch-hunt came from Ian McGeechan, the defeated coach, who said: "I admire Martin a lot. I only complain about things that are cynical or dangerous and, believe me, he's simply not that sort." In other words: "We have a great player here. Get off his back."

Along with Fritz van Heerden, who fairly murdered Tim Rodber in the ball- winning phases, and Richard Cockerill, who played quite brilliantly at hooker, Johnson packed too much dynamite for a Northampton side long on muscle but short in the ideas department. It was more than a little ironic, then, that the killer score arrived while both he and his fellow sin-bin resident, Pat Howard, were kicking their heels on the wrong side of the touchline. Cockerill found Martin Corry with a short, flat, dart-thrower's delivery at a 65th minute line-out and the big No 8 steamrollered Matt Dawson into the Franklin's Gardens goo before stretching over in the left corner.

Dawson quickly squared it at 15-apiece with his fifth penalty, but the momentum was now with the visitors, who could almost smell the polish on the Allied Dunbar trophy as they sought to close out the game. McHugh's third white card, legitimately flourished at Matti Stewart following a punch from the Northampton tight head, gave Leicester an extra man at the scrummage They made it count on the stroke of time when, after three set-piece wheels and two collapses, they were awarded a penalty try.

The dice might have tumbled in Northampton's favour had McHugh treated the home side similarly at the end of the third quarter. Federico Mendez constructed a useful attacking platform in centre field, from which the seriously rapid Ben Cohen was launched deep into the Leicester 22.

Howard scrambled back to fell Budge Pountney with a try-saving tackle, but the Australian's subsequent decision to smother the loose ball on the floor led to a short, sharp outbreak of fisticuffs and 10 long minutes in the cooler.

"On balance, a penalty try would have been reasonable," agreed McGeechan. "A score was definitely on, even after the tackle on Pountney."

For all that, McGeechan had no real complaints. "It was such a tight game, a game of tiny advantages and disadvantages," he said. "In the end, they made fewer mistakes at important times." And that, he rightly concluded, is the true mark of a champion side.

Northampton: Penalties Dawson 5. Leicester: Tries Joiner, Corry, Penalty Try; Conversions: Stimpson 2; Penalty: Stimpson.

Northampton: N Beal; C Moir, A Northey, M Allen, B Cohen; A Hepher, M Dawson; M Volland, F Mendez, M Stewart, R Metcalfe, T Rodber (capt), D Mackinnon (M Hynes 76), P Lam, A Pountney.

Leicester: T Stimpson; L Lloyd (N Ezulike 74), C Joiner, J Stuart (G Murphy 41), J Hamilton; D Jelley (G Rowntree 62), R Cockerill (D West 74), D Garforth, M Johnson (capt), F Van Heerden, L Moody (W Johnson 68), M Corry, N Back.

Referee: D McHugh (Ireland).