Rugby Union: Rodber's injury fear

Northampton 19 West Hartlepool 14
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NORTHAMPTON remain at the top of the table and therefore title contenders but there was more to cause concern than celebrate in this narrow victory over bottom-placed West Hartlepool.

A performance littered with mistakes and lacking passion and commitment was compounded by the reluctant departure of Tim Rodber in the 20th minute. His recent bad luck with injuries will worry both the Saints and England managements, a popped rib cartilage the latest ailment that could sideline him for up to three weeks.

There is no good time to lose key players but with a feeling at the club that trophies should be won this year, the next two weeks will prove vital. London Irish in the cup next week and a must-win league match against Saracens the following Saturday will test the Saints' determination and credentials. If the recent defeat to Irish is to be avenged, their all- round play must improve markedly.

Basic mistakes occurred all too frequently for a title-chasing side often under little or no pressure. Only in the final 15 minutes, after second- half scores by Pita Tanginoa and Steven Vile gave West a five-point lead, did the Saints inject substance into their game.

The ever-combative Pat Lam ran round under the posts after sustained pressure and Paul Grayson's fourth penalty five minutes later ended the scoring. But the game should have been won in the first half. Consistently awry timing on pop passes and runs ruined many attacks, leaving only three penalties to show for huge advantage in territory and possession.

Admittedly, West defended the line gallantly with a mixture of bravery and infringements, Steven Sparks being sin-binned on the stroke of half- time, but this masks rather than explains Saints' lack of incision.

Time and time again the centres turned infield rather than spreading the ball wide, which was curious since Craig Moir posed a threat on the rare occasions he was used. On this showing West deserve to remain in the top flight more than the Saints deserve to win it.

Northampton: N Beal; C Moir, A Blyth, M Allen (D Dantiacq, 70), B Cohen; P Grayson, M Dawson; G Pagel, S Walter, M Stewart (M Hynes, 58), J Phillips, T Rodber (capt, S Foale, 20), G Seely, B Pountney, P Lam.

West Hartlepool: E Farrell; M Mullins, J Connolly, P Tanginoa, S John; S Vile, T Nu'uali'itia; S Sparks, S McDonald, K Fourie, P Farner (capt), T Collier, M Salter, D Monkley, J Ponton.

Referee: C White (RFU).