Rugby Union: North's poverty exposed by Back

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The Independent Online
North . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .13

Midlands. . . . . . . . . . . . . .16

THE Divisional Championship has demonstrated many of the strengths of English rugby, but at Blundellsands we were reminded of a weakness - of how few First Division clubs there are in the north. The division is handicapped by not having a core club, as Bath is to the South-West and Northampton and Leicester are to the Midlands. This makes it harder for the North to mount a challenge.

Against the Midlands, the North had seven men who do not play First Division rugby, and they were without Dewi Morris and Wade Dooley as well. Their 15 players came from 10 clubs.

Compare this with the riches of the Midlands, whose team as originally selected was built around Northampton's five representatives and Leicester's seven and needed to call in only three men from outside the First Division - Coventry's Richard Angell and Moseley's Mark Linnett and Peter Shillingford. When Steve Hackney injured a knee early on, he was replaced by John Steele with no loss of rhythm or momentum.

No wonder the North's coach, Mike Slemen, spoke the way he did after this match between the two defeated teams in the Championship. 'We can't start from scratch,' the former Lion said. 'We have to fine tune what we've got, bring through our own players and teach them how to play at a higher level.'

Just how difficult this is was clear on Saturday. The North won little line-out ball, an area where Martin Bayfield and Martin Johnson were proved superior, as indeed they should have been. The North's forwards are not strong; the Midlands' are. Dean Richards is approaching his best (as well as wearing the dirtiest pair of boots on the field) and Neil Back is a magnificent, tireless marauder. If only he was three inches taller and two stone heavier.

This was enough to tip the game the way of the Midlands, but there was more. The North's scrum was weaker, which led to difficulties. There was one scrum on the North's line at which Ed Morrison, the referee, insisted the ball be put in five times before he was satisfied that all was as it should be.

Slemen is sometimes laconic but he was deadly serious, if resigned, when he summed up the game thus: 'We had no platform from which to work. We lost a lot of ball in the loose. The Midlands gave us a lesson in how to recycle loose ball. It is as simple as that.'

The game was loose and frantic and lacked cohesion behind the scrum. The North had a chance of levelling the score midway through the second half. They should not have been in the same parish, never mind within three points. Paul Grayson, a stand-off of promise who can kick enormous distances, missed and the Midlands breathed again.

The Midlands forwards won it while two men who play their rugby in the Midlands, the Underwoods, combined to create the only try, and a good one, for the North. Rory set it up and Tony finished it off. The Midlands against the South-West on Saturday should be interesting - Richards against Ben Clark, Back against Andy Robinson, Leicester against Bath.

North: Tries T Underwood; Conversions Grayson; Penalties Grayson 2. Midlands: Tries Potter, Johnson; Penalties Steele 2.

NORTH: I Hunter (Northampton); T Underwood (Leicester), B Barley (Wakefield), K Simms (Liverpool St Helens, capt), R Underwood (Leicester); P Grayson (Waterloo), D Scully (Wakefield); M Hynes (Orrell), S Mitchell (West Hartlepool), M Whitcombe (Sale), K Westgarth (West Hartlepool), D Baldwin (Sale), T Rodber (Northampton), M Pepper (Nottingham) M Greenwood (Wasps).

MIDLANDS: J Liley; S Hackney, S Potter (Leicester), F Packman, H Thorneycroft (Northampton); R Angell (Coventry), M Dawson (Northampton); M Linnett (Moseley) J Olver (Northampton), D Garforth, M Johnson (Leicester), M Bayfield (Northampton), P Shillingford (Moseley), N Back, D Richards (Leicester, capt). Replacement: J Steele (Northampton) for Hackney, 8.

Referee: E Morrison (Bristol).