Rugby Union: Saints raise the standard

Northampton 17 Newcastle 7
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SO Fran Cotton believes that "draft" rugby - or, to fish its proper name from the septic tank of English sporting sewage, "divisional" rugby - would improve the national team's chances of winning next year's World Cup. Nice flight of fancy, shame about the reality bypass. The big man would make more sense right now if he suggested feeding Clive Woodward's squad a diet of kryptonite sandwiches, or plotted to put every All Black, Springbok, Wallaby and Tricolore under house arrest until the end of the tournament.

For every provincially-obsessed Cottonite with an insatiable appetite for the frugal pleasures of divisional action - if that is not a contradiction in terms - there are tens of thousands of honest, rank and file rugby folk who would rather watch Nempnett Thrubwell Extra Thirds battle it out with Kingston Bagpuize Under-Nines. As they say in all the best astronomy circles, the divisions are about as popular as a rear burp in a spacesuit.

What is popular, beyond any shadow of a doubt, is club rugby; big, brash, brazen affairs like Saturday's wonderfully competitive Tetley's Bitter Cup quarter-final at Franklins Gardens. Very nearly 8,500 spectators paid their money at the turnstiles to revel in the experience and had Cotton parked his formidable frame in the main stand and allowed his imagination full rein, the penny would surely have dropped. Quite simply, the Northampton- Newcastle tie was the business.

There is no earthly point in Cotton pointing to the 15 imported players on view and asking: "What the hell does this do for the England team?" The World Cup is important, yes, but no more important to the Joe Publics in the Franklins Gardens shed than the Saints reaching a Twickenham cup final. An inherent arrogance underpins the "England first and last" argument, for it assumes the clubs exist only to furnish Woodward with a regular fix of Test-standard talent.

Which simply cannot be the case in the professional era, as Ian McGeechan eloquently explained on Saturday. The Northampton coach spent all last summer working hand in glove with Cotton as the Lions hatched their astonishing ambush of the Springboks and he took no great pleasure in disagreeing with a friend and colleague of almost 25 years' standing. But disagree he did, with an argument of passionate intensity.

"Isn't it interesting that the two European countries who are going well at Test level, England and France, are the two with a club-based domestic structure?" he pointed out. "You saw the game out there today. What more do people want? We had talented players, atmosphere, tremendous support, an immense pressure to perform. Rugby just doesn't get any better, whatever the level.

"Any player's ambition is to be picked by his country and I want to produce players here who are capable of competing in the Test arena, but the Rugby Football Union has to work with the clubs to make it happen. They should remember where they get their players from, because unions don't create them out of nothing."

McGeechan's achievement in masterminding Newcastle's first domestic defeat in 20 outings may not have sent Lion-sized ructions rumbling across the wider sporting landscape, but it confirmed once again that he has no peer as a defensive strategist. In a thunderously physical set-to, described by Rob Andrew, the Newcastle stand-off and director of rugby, as "very close indeed to international standard", the eternally pragmatic Scot raised Northampton's tackle game to previously unimagined heights.

If Tim Rodber's definitive demolition job on the rampaging Va'aiga Tuigamala gave the Saints the spiritual lift they required at the start of the second half, subsequent try-saving efforts from Matt Allen and Matt Dawson put them in seventh heaven. Allen pulled off the chase-back tackle of the season to halt Tony Underwood five metres short of the line while Dawson wrestled Gary Armstrong onto his back as the Scottish scrum-half went hell for leather for the equalising try two minutes from time.

Only once did they leave the barricades unmanned, but Dean Ryan's intelligently- angled gallop onto the sweetest of Alan Tait passes caused minimal damage. Turning round a mere point adrift with the wind and slope in their favour, Northampton wound themselves up another notch and duly exposed the Newcastle pack as the one-paced and inflexible juggernaut its critics have long suspected it of being.

Only Ryan, prodigious and petulant in equal measure, got fully to grips with the occasion, although there were isolated flashes of inspiration from Nick Popplewell and Ross Nesdale. Northampton, meanwhile, were able to draw on a first-half performance of startling quality from Grant Seely, an equally effective second 40 from Rodber and a full 80 minutes of close- quarter prowess from Garry Pagel, the former Bokke prop whose muscular know-how has ben central to the Midlanders' mid-season renaissance.

Pagel had a hairy hand in the 51st minute forward thrust that eventually gave Paul Grayson the first of two drop goals - the second would tie things up in injury time - while Rodber, so impressive when his tight five work him onto the front foot, ploughed into the Newcastle 22 to create the momentum for Allen's game-breaking try in the left corner seven minutes later. "That was a sweet one," grinned McGeechan. "In a really close match like that, it's very satisfying to manufacture such a clear-cut score."

But then, these are satisfying times at Franklins Gardens: real vision, real passion, real rugby. Just like the old divisional championship. Not.

Northampton: Try: Allen; Penalties: Grayson 2; Drop goal: Grayson 2. Newcastle:Try: Ryan; Conversion: Andrew.

Northampton: I Hunter; J Sleightholme, G Townsend (A Northey, 42), M Allen, H Thorneycroft; P Grayson, M Dawson; G Pagel, A Clarke (C Johnson, 73), M Stewart, J Phillips, J Chandler, T Rodber (capt), G Seely, A Pountney.

Newcastle: S Legg; J Naylor, A Tait, V Tuigamala, T Underwood; R Andrew, G Armstrong; N Popplewell, R Nesdale, P Van-Zandvliet, G Archer, G Weir, P Lam, D Ryan (capt), R Arnold.

Referee: S Lander (Liverpool).