Rugby Union: Richards writes off Leicester chances

Northampton 46 Leicester 24
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DEAN RICHARDS was desperate to talk about the early autumn conditions. "Lovely day," he said, rather stating the obvious as the sun continued to beat down on Franklin's Gardens. "Really nice weather," he continued, milking his little irrelevance for all it was worth. As a matter of fact, the great man would have discussed pretty much anything - planning policy in rural Leicestershire, favourite Verdi arias, the iniquities of the council tax, the hidden health benefits of the Old Gutbucket he swigs at his local pub - as long as he did not have to mention his day job. Rugby was not on the Richards agenda on Saturday night. Please, anything but rugby.

In fairness, there was very little rugby for him to talk about; whatever his beloved Tigers had played at Northampton that afternoon, it was not the game at which Deano the folk hero excelled between 1982 and 1997. Garry Pagel, the Saints' thirtysomething Springbok prop, had just spent 80 less than exhausting minutes shunting a horribly lightweight Leicester pack from pillar to post and back again and, if the visitors' scrummage was an unmitigated shambles, their line-out was even worse. They suffered a comprehensive seeing-to in the loose, too. Their tormentor in chief? Another 32-year-old, Simon Holmes. So much for union as a young man's game.

The net result was a six-try derby hiding in front of a 10,000 full house and when Richards was finally persuaded to share some thoughts on what he had just seen - his words had to be dragged from him - he made a unilateral declaration of hopelessness by ruling out any possibility of Leicester retaining the Allied Dunbar Premiership title they won in such convincing style last time out. "I don't know whether we'll finish second, third or fourth, but I don't think we'll be up there winning the championship in May, precisely because of the situation we now find ourselves in." By which he meant the loss of six international forwards, not to mention Austin Healey and Will Greenwood and Dave Lougheed, to a seven-week tour of World Cup duty with England.

So that's that, then. From now on, it's Saturday afternoons at Homebase for the Welford Road faithful. Depending on the duration of England's World Cup engagement, the champions may have to negotiate six further Premiership matches before Martin Johnson, Neil Back and the ABC club return to familiar pastures and of those, only the home matches with Sale and Bedford appear banker victories. Four points from a possible 14 going into mid-November? As Richards rightly suspects, it would be a long way back from there.

The portents for this chastening defeat were in evidence as long ago as November of last year, when a fair chunk of Saturday's personnel travelled to Wasps and caught a nasty cold to the tune of 45-17. No one player is indispensable, true, but an entire pack obviously is. As team manager, Richards knew full well it would go pear-shaped at Northampton when two men who might have done a job for him, Neil Fletcher and Leon Lloyd, withdrew with twisted backs - the former on the morning of the game, the latter 10 minutes before kick-off.

He had no complaints about the result - "I thought we were in there fighting at 15-10 down midway through the first half, but they were so dominant up front that it was always going to be a difficult game to get on top of" - but he was not quite so sanguine about some of the short-term spending in evidence at rival clubs. "Some teams have bought players with the specific purpose of winning, say, five of these seven early games," he said. "In my view, those are the teams you'll see at the top when this third of the season is completed."

One player who certainly falls into that category is Holmes, the former London Scottish captain brought to Northampton on a three-month deal by John Steele, who left the self-same Exiles club in June to replace Ian McGeechan as director of rugby at the Gardens. Unsurprisingly, in the light of his flanker's bravura performance amid the flying boots and snarling studs, Steele will be more than happy to discuss something more permanent if Holmes still feels up for it when the Saints' own World Cup contingent return. "Simon is coming to the end of his career and he has other things in his life," said the coach. "But he's bringing a lot to Northampton at the moment. Once he got used to the fact that he was playing in front of 10,000 people rather than the 17 we used to get at Scottish, he was outstanding in every respect."

Holmes did not come into his own for half an hour or so, but given the ferocity of Pagel's performance in the opening quarter, it hardly mattered. Rumbling close-range tries from Don Mackinnon and Grant Seely resulted directly from the South African's know-how in the scrums and mauls and although Leicester closed to within five points shortly before the interval, two fortuitous scores in short order took Northampton out of sight. The first fell to Ben Cohen when a speculative punt downfield cruelly deceived the covering Tim Stimpson, the second to Matt Allen after an apparent obstruction on Jon Sleightholme had the Tigers defence looking at the referee rather than the ball.

"To be honest with you, I don't think Northampton did much to threaten us out wide; it was all pick-up-and-drive stuff through the middle," said Stimpson, who is beginning to look like the England full-back he was before a season-long squabble with Newcastle diverted his career into a cul-de-sac.

Therein lies the warning for Northampton. One of these fine days, they will come up against a pack of forwards as opposed to a pack of boy scouts. Is there a Plan B?

Northampton: Tries Allen 2, Mackinnon, Seely, Cohen, Moir; Conversions A Hepher 5; Penalties Hepher 2. Leicester: Tries Ezulike, Goode, Joiner; Conversions Stimpson 3; Penalty Stimpson.

Northampton: C Moir; J Sleightholme, A Northey, M Allen, B Cohen; A Hepher, D Malone (J Bramhall, 70); G Pagel, S Walter, M Stewart (M Volland, 71), R Metcalfe, J Phillips, D Mackinnon (capt; S Hepher, 63), G Seely (C Allan, 28), S Holmes.

Leicester: T Stimpson; G Murphy, C Joiner, P Howard, N Ezulike; A Goode, J Hamilton; D Jelley, D West (capt), K Fourie (P Freshwater, 70), D Zaltzman (A Balding, 60), B Kay (P Short, 21), P Gustard, W Johnson, L Moody.

Referee: E Morrison (Bristol).