Rugby Union: Saints pay for their sins

Northampton 6 London Irish 21
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THE PLUM tie of the round turned out to be a little over-ripe for Northampton. Perhaps the Saints had been exposed to the damp for too long. Since November, 30cm of rain have fallen on the Franklins Gardens surface, which used to be the envy of every other ground in the Premiership.

Yesterday it was like a paddy field and, not surprisingly, it was the paddies who prospered. Having run out in their change kit resembling 15 pints of Guinness, to be followed by Ed Morrison, the referee, attired in the cup sponsors' uniform and looking like a pint of Tetleys, the Irish saw to it that it was Northampton who went horribly flat.

They were much too sharp and subtle behind the scrum for their laboured opponents. Their half-backs, Kevin Putt and Stephen Bachop, so light on their feet, cut through the heavy surface time and again to create room for the outside backs. In midfield Northampton were outclassed by the speed and power of the Irish centres, Nick Burrows and Brendan Venter. Contrast this with the plodding predictability of Northampton's backs, whose lack of penetration was not helped by Paul Grayson's poor decision-making and the even poorer execution of his kicking from the hand. The conditions demanded decisiveness and pin-point accuracy, but Grayson failed on both counts.

There was hardly a pass throughout the first half which was placed precisely in front of the taker and it was therefore fitting that the score which sealed London Irish's victory should have been the result of Northampton's waywardness in this area.

Eleven minutes into the second half Nick Beal, who had hardly distinguished himself up to that point, aimed a pass in the direction of his wing, Craig Moir, only to watch it being intercepted by Niall Woods, who sprinted 75 metres for the try. Woods, who had earlier kicked two penalties, enjoyed a fairly profitable afternoon and might easily have scored a second try minutes later but just failed to control the rolling ball with the line at his mercy.

Perversely, the up-turn in Irish's fortunes coincided with the loss of their outstanding lock, Malcolm O'Kelly, midway through the first half. He was taken off with a dislocated shoulder and will be out for at least four weeks. This means that he will definitely miss Saturday's international against France at Lansdowne Road.

Up to that point Northampton, though incapable of breaking down the Irish defence, had at least enjoyed territorial advantage. In the conditions when every point is priceless, Matt Dawson's decision to decline simple kicks at goal twice in favour of a solo run into a brick wall, and a miscued touch kick by Grayson, seemed a little strange. The Irish were not so profligate and when the chances came for them to take the points Woods accepted them with alacrity. To his first-half penalties he added a third and converted Conor O'Shea's late try to finish with 16 points.

Northampton's inconsistency would now appear to be the biggest obstacle to their hopes of winning the Premiership. Their failure to dominate on a pitch which was better suited to their style must concern their coach, Ian McGeechan. Even Pat Lam, one of the outstanding players this season, was conspicuous by his absence from the key passages of play.

The crowd's mounting annoyance at some of the referee's decisions rang false. Northampton had contributed hugely to their own downfall and Grayson's two penalties kicked in respectful silence when they were 14 points behind proved to be too little too late and served only to highlight their failure to take the opportunities offered to them at a time when they might have influenced the outcome.

The second Irish try, scored six minutes from the end, again demonstrated their cutting edge, Burrows making room for O'Shea to score, with Woods converting. The scoreboard might not have accurately reflected the gulf in class between the sides but the Northampton players were left in no doubt. The rehabilitation process could be long and painful.

Northampton: N Beal; C Moir (A Northey, 60), A Blyth, M Allen (D Dantiacq, 60), B Cohen; P Grayson, M Dawson (capt); G Pagel, F Mendez, M Stewart, R Metcalfe, J Phillips, D McKinnon (C Allan, 70), G Seely, P Lam.

London Irish: C O'Shea (capt); J Bishop, N Burrows, B Venter, N Woods; S Bachop, K Putt (P Richards, 60); N Hatley, R Kirke, R Hardwick (K Fullman, 66), R Strudwick, M O'Kelly (M Bird, 21, M Howe, 80), J Boer, I Feaunati, R Gallacher.

Referee: E Morrison (Bristol).