Rugby Union: Saints sin again

Northampton 23 Harlequins 26
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The Independent Online
Northampton so completely lost their bearings against Harlequins they probably thought they were playing away from home. As they only managed two league victories beyond Franklins Gardens last season - against the relegated Orrell and West Hartlepool - it was no surprise that once again they lost a match they should have won.

Not that Saints were impregnable at home last term, or that they can expect to be from hereon. For all the guile of Gregor Townsend, the punch of his half-back partner, Matt Dawson, and the exciting running of their threequarters, they lack the solidity and control in key areas so essential to success, as their Director of Rugby, Ian McGeechan, readily conceded afterwards.

"It is going to be a very demanding season," said McGeechan. "And the league will be very tight. But although we scored three tries to two, we made far too many unforced errors and must reach a higher level of consistency. Quite frankly, we gave Harlequins too many points and missed a lot ourselves, and paid the full price."

Inevitably, the finger will be pointed at Dawson who had assumed the captaincy when Tim Rodber departed after half-time with a strained hamstring. Harlequins were leading 26-11 towards the end of the third quarter, but they allowed the Lions' scrum-half to escape, just as the Springboks did in Cape Town, and he scored a marvellous solo try to put Northampton back on track for victory.

Until then, Townsend had been kicking, but he failed to convert Dawson's try. So when, with six minutes remaining, Shem Tatupu scored Saints' third try, Dawson converted to haul his team to 26-23 down and with every opportunity at least to redeem themselves for what in the greater part had been an error-riddled performance.

But when the moment, or rather both moments, came, Dawson was not up to it. Twice Northampton were awarded penalties in kickable positions. Each time Dawson fired wide, and Harlequins were reprieved.

In many ways they deserved to be. They lost Will Carling with a calf- muscle injury sustained in the act of scoring their opening try after only four minutes and had to replace him with a debutant, Stuart Power, alongside the Tongan Johnny Ngauamo, who was also playing his first game for the London side.

But while Townsend and Dawson were invariably off- target, Thierry Lacroix converted both Quins' tries - the second after a 50-metre gallop by Daren O'Leary - and kicked four penalties from five attempts. It was more than enough.

Northampton: I Hunter (H Thorneycroft, 60); C Moir, R MacNaughton, M Allen, N Beal; G Townsend, M Dawson; M Hynes (C Allen, 41), A Clarke (C Johnson, 60), M Stewart, M Bayfield, J Phillips, S Tatupu, T Rodber (capt; G Seely, 63),B Pountney.

Harlequins: J Williams; D O'Leary, J Ngauamo, W Carling (S Power, 5), R Liley; T Lacroix, H Harries; A Ozdemir (M Cuttitta, 63), K Wood (capt), J Leonard, G Llewellyn, L Gross, G Allison (R Jenkins, 41), B Davison, L Cabannes.

Referee: C White (Cheltenham).