Rugby Union: Saints in no mood for falling shy of title

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The Independent Online
Sale 24 Northampton 39

IAN McGEECHAN displays none of the restlessness associated with some people in sport to whom ambition is all. Not because the Northampton director of rugby has done it all. Far from it.

There is much more he wishes to achieve, despite being a playing member of the unbeaten British Lions team to South Africa in 1974, the successful coach of two winning Lions Test teams, and you can add that Scotland Grand Slam in 1990. So, McGeechan could also be forgiven for feeling he has little to prove.

The more likely explanation is of an understandable need to protect a career which has so far not been undermined by failure. McGeechan has never said as much, but all the talk about Northampton being a side of perennial under-achievers has hurt.

In quieter moments, McGeechan must have dwelt on the inescapable fact that the dividing line between deep-seated pride and self-delusion is perilously thin in professional sport.

Until this season, McGeechan has managed a Saints side for whom winning one of the major prizes was not impossible, but on the improbable side of daunting.

There is still some way to go, but McGeechan may soon be able to put the spectre of continuous under-achievement behind him, and be within reach of adding a major club competition to his curriculum vitae.

At his disposal McGeechan now has a pack of forwards capable of competing with the best; and that includes Leicester.

Soon he will able to call on the 6ft 3in, 20 stone, Argentinian tight- head Martin Scelzo, to join his compatriot Federico Mendez in the front row.

By then, Northampton will surely be prepared for the visit on 13 March of Leicester to Franklin's Gardens for a confrontation which will probably settle the destination of the Allied Dunbar silverware.

They are almost ready now. With 10 victories from their last 11 Premiership matches, this latest, at Heywood Road, where Sale lost only to Richmond in the league in 1998, was on a ground where Saints have won only once before in a decade.

For a while it seemed as if Northampton's obsession with the primacy of forward power, to the exclusion of all other forms of attacking expression, might cost them dear, as Sale scored four spanking tries; all from long range.

But with Dion O'Cuinneagain white-carded for not retiring at a penalty, the Saints' pack was in full cry. Pat Lam grabbed a hat-trick of tries and Saints went marching to the top of the table, separated from Leicester only by points difference.

Sale: Tries Hanley 2, Machacek, Moore; Conversions Howarth 2. Northampton: Tries Lam 3, Allen, Malone; Conversions Grayson 4; Penalties Grayson 2.

Sale: J Mallinder (capt); M Moore, B-J Mather, C Yates, S Hanley; S Howarth, R Smith; P Winstanley (D Williamson, 74), P Greening (S Diamond, 68), D Bell, D Baldwin (A Sanderson, h-t), C Murphy, S Raiwalui, P Sanderson, D O'Cuinnneagain (J Machacek, 67).

Northampton: N Beal; C Moir, A Blyth, M Allen, J Sleightholme; P Grayson, M Dawson (D Malone, 75); G Pagel, F Mendez, M Stewart (M Hynes, 73), R Metcalfe, T Rodber (capt, J Phillips, 67), G Seely, B Pountney, P Lam.

Referee: A Rowden (Thatcham, Berkshire).