Rugby Union: Saints alive but really only kicking

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The Independent Online
Northampton 9 Gloucester 6 Seven up and at last a bit of fizz, Northampton breaking their league duck after six opening weeks of flat-bitter rugby that had left them squirming at the foot of the table. A win over Gloucester at Franklin's Gardens was all it took, though, to raise spirits and even lift them above the luckless West Hartlepool on points difference.

Not that anyone should get too carried away by this performance, however much Saints supporters cheered their side to the finish on Saturday. Three penalties to two, all kicked in a taut first half, was hardly riveting stuff.

More promising was the driving play that followed the break, but with Gloucester on the back foot the try-line remained out of reach and there is still a good deal of work to be done before Northampton start bowling over opponents on a regular basis.

Precious little time, either, for Saints to savour the winning feeling. Next up come Wasps at Sudbury, a difficult enough trip assuming all was in working order. 'I keep saying,' Ian McGeechan, Northampton's new director of rugby, said, 'I don't think there's an easy one. We've just got to take what we've been good at to Wasps. I keep telling the players they've got to look critically at their performances and we'll do that out of victory, just as we have in defeat.'

Meanwhile, two moments had a huge bearing on Saturday's change of fortune.

When Gloucester lost their cool at a ruck and gave the hooker Allen Clarke a thorough going- over, the Northampton pack came together furiously. Which in turn inspired the rest of the team, Harvey Thorneycroft underlining this by taking on Mike Teague and leaving the old Lion flat on the floor with a wonderfully satisfying hand-off.

Thorneycroft paused to look at his work as if he could hardly believe what he had just achieved and then took off at a run again. Home supporters, previously starved of any such rousing rugby, responded with a roar that continued to the final whistle. 'I'd give the points to the crowd,' McGeechan said. 'They were tremendous.'

He was not kidding. Heaven knows what decibel level might have been achieved had the Saints actually scored a try. As it was, three successes in five attempts on goal from Paul Grayson to two in five from Mark Mapletoft was still enough to raise the roof.

All that was missing was a rendering of the Saints signature tune, but the band that once played here on a regular basis appears to have marched off elsewhere.

Yet for once the Saints were making their own music. 'The thing that worried me, though,' McGeechan said, 'is that we'd virtually played Gloucester inside their own 22 for 25 minutes in the second half and the scoreboard was still the same.'

If McGeechan was not completely satisfied with the Northampton effort, then just imagine how his predecessor at Franklin's Gardens must have felt. 'We don't want to suffer the ignominy of becoming the first team to lose to them this season,' Barrie Corless had remarked. Bottled up after the interval, however, that was precisely Gloucester's lot.

Northampton: Penalties Grayson 3. Gloucester: Penalties Mapletoft 2.

Northampton: S Juds; K Morgan, N Beal, M Allen, H Thorneycroft; P Grayson, M Dawson; M Hynes, A Clarke, M Lewis, J Phillips, M Bayfield, T Rodber (capt), G Seeley, T Pountney.

Gloucester: M Mapletoft; P Holford, S Morris, B Maslen, L Osborne; M Kimber, B Fenley; P Jones, D Kearsey, A Deacon (capt), D Sims, R West, M Teague, C Raymond, I Smith.

Referee: C Rees (Twickenham).

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