Rugby Union: Saints do the league a favour

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Northampton. . . . .11

Bath. . . . . . . . .8

AT LAST a game worthy of the occasion. Two of England's most powerful sides, a firm pitch and a packed house. We were not disappointed. It was a magnificent game played at a cracking pace from start to finish. Northampton's victory has given fresh impetus not only to their title hopes but to the league itself, which, had the result been reversed, would have offered a forlorn chase for those clubs in Bath's wake.

For Northampton to come back from last week's defeat by London Irish says as much for the authority and organisation of their coach Glenn Ross as it does for the resilience and spirit of his players. The suspicion had been growing that Northampton, gifted as they are in so many areas, do not have the personnel to adapt to the new laws. Yesterday they had an immovable scrummage and a line- out with as many permutations as there are days in the year. They also had a back row of such enterprise and commitment that Bath made as many unforced errors during those 80 pulsating minutes as they usually do in a month.

For all their territorial supremacy with the wind at their backs in the first half, Northampton were restricted to two penalty goals by John Steele and a breakaway try by Nick Beal which was as controversial as it was unexpected.

Spirit and teamwork apart, Northampton's worst moments came when the ball was on the move. The faster Bath moved it the greater Northampton's problems, and there were times when the home team were powerless to contain their opponents. Occasionally the very speed of the game proved too much for both sides and the commitment turned to open hostility. Graham Dawe was fortunate to stay on after head-butting John Olver in the opening minutes and later receiving a stern warning from the referee Fred Howard. Gareth Chilcott, too, was warned and as the game progressed Bath's indiscipline betrayed growing concern.

After 30 minutes of almost constant pressure Northampton were relieved to have Beal's try to add to Steele's two penalties. It came from one of Bath's most potent attacks, Steve Ojomoh's pass on the end of a sweeping move being knocked down - and a suspicion that it might also have been knocked forward clearly lingered among the Bath players. Beal was first to the ball and hacked on over the Bath line to score. Unaccountably, Steele with the easiest of his three kicks at goal in the first half pulled the ball wide.

Up to that point Northampton's most effective method of gaining ground had been through the trenchant running of Harvey Thorneycroft and an impregnable midfield defence which time and again stopped Barnes, de Glanville and Guscott in their tracks. Matt Dawson, a pale and slight figure at scrum-half, had also displayed courage and resourcefulness in dealing with some unappetising possession. His brisk pass and self-confidence gave Northampton's backs more attacking options than they were able to take. When he moved into fly-half as a replacement for Steele he looked equally comfortable.

Now, against the wind, Bath began to exert control with a fleetness of foot and sharpness of thought which were irresistible. Barnes kicked a penalty and, with the pressure mounting on their beleaguered defence, Northampton attempted to break out. Thorneycroft was brilliantly tackled by Guscott, Steele was dispossessed in midfield and from a sweeping counter-attack Clarke was given a straight run to the line. It was surely just a matter of time before the Northampton surrender. But they found renewed vigour. Guscott had to put in a second withering tackle on Thorneycroft and Webb another palpable hit on Ian Hunter. With Steele off the field, Beal, poor chap, was entrusted with two penalty kicks, both of which he missed. And in those final enthralling moments Hunter missed with another, but it did not matter. Northampton were back in control and the title race is wide open.

Northampton: I Hunter; N Beal, F Packman, R MacNaughton, H Thorneycroft; J Steele (D Elkington), M Dawson; G Baldwin, J Olver (capt), C Allan, T Rodber, J Etheridge, P Walton, R Tebbutt, W Shelford.

Bath: J Webb; T Swift, P de Glanville, J Guscott, A Adebayo; S Barnes, R Hill; G Chilcott, G Dawe, V Ubogu, M Haag, S O'Leary, A Robinson (capt), S Ojomoh, B Clarke.

Referee: F Howard (RFU).

Scores: Steele (pen, 6 min) 3-0, Steele (pen, 9 min) 6-0, Beal (try, 30 min) 11-0, Barnes (pen, 46 min) 11-3, Clarke (try, 53 min) 11-8.