Rugby Union: Saints try spree shoots down Falcons

Northampton 57 Newcastle 16
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The Independent Online
THERE WAS something almost perverse, on the day English clubs deigned to re-join the European Cup, that Newcastle Falcons should be resting their top players because their visit to Northampton was the first of three intense, demanding matches in eight days.

Steve Bates, the Newcastle coach said: "The whole structure of the season is a joke," as he contemplated the next league match on Wednesday against London Scottish and the Tetley's Bitter Cup semi-final against Richmond three days later.

It meant that three key players - Gary Armstrong, Doddie Weir and Jonny Wilkinson - were all rested. The two Scottish internationals did not have it spelled out, they understood that winning at Franklin's Gardens was not a realistic option and therefore they needed to be spared the ordeal.

But as Rob Andrew said afterwards: "Jonny wanted to play today. I talked to him last Monday when he came back from the international and told him 'We probably won't play you on Saturday'. But all young players want to play every game. We were all the same. I think he understands that, but it is still hard for him to accept."

Andrew of course did play. But so did Northampton. Wonderfully so. The Saints were all verve and swerve, running in nine tries to Newcastle's solitary first-half effort. It was a particularly gratifying performance for a couple of Saints' former Falcons, lock Richard Metcalfe, who scored the second of their tries, and the dynamic No 8 Pat Lam.

They were part of a team which appeared to be attempting to personify perpetual motion, and almost succeeded. The Saints trampled all over their opponents, ultimately cutting loose in a glorious second half in which scrum-half Matt Dawson, hooker Federico Mendez and Lam made some dazzling contributions.

It was not surprising to hear Wilkinson say afterwards: "It was difficult watching." That had to be an understatement. It was painful if you were a Falcons follower or player. But wonderful if you marched with the Saints.

And amid the exhilarating, expansive style of the Saints was the sheer physicality of the confrontation, bruising and brutal. Afterwards Andrew, who is still enjoying the action, even at 36, predicted: "I doubt that Jonny Wilkinson could have as long a career as me with seasons where he has to play matches of this sort of intensity.

"For these young boys now, tackling is a big part of their game. They watch Rugby League and Super 12 stuff, that's why, when you see these guys clatter each other, you know they can't play for 15 years at this level.

"So I'd be surprised if he's playing at 36. I don't think Jonny will want to be going for 10, 12 or 14 seasons; he is only 19 years old, that is another 17 years if he wants to be doing what I am doing. He isn't going to want to do that. He will just burn out mentally as well as physically."

For that reason Andrew wants a great deal of thought to be put into the structure of what promises to be a crammed season, what with the World Cup and all.

"It's all about quality not quantity," said the former England outside half. "One thing we have learned is that you can't play twice a week at this game.

"It is not possible, not at the top of your game. I think you have to reduce the number of fixtures to enhance the quality of the matches.

"It is just a matter of getting the equation right between playing and financing. We are moving towards having 10 good clubs. That is all the game can support.

"There are 14 of us hanging on to the cliff edge; one or two have nearly fallen off it, including ourselves. I don't think there will be huge financial rewards for successful clubs, but I think there will be a break even professional game if we have a sensible pay structure and sensible sponsorship and a sensible structure to the season." Then, there should be more exhibitions such as this.

Northampton: Tries Cohen 2, Metcalfe, Allen, Mendez 2, Dawson, Pountney, Beal; Conversions Dawson 6. Newcastle: Tries Charlton; Conversion Andrew; Penalties Andrew 3.

Northampton: N Beal; C Moir, A Northey, M Allen (A Blyth, 28-35), B Cohen; A Hepher, M Dawson; M Volland, F Mendez (S Walter, 79), M Stewart, R Metcalfe (J Phillips, 41), T Rodber (capt), D Mackinnon (G Seely, 46), P Lam, B Pountney.

Newcastle: P Massey; J Naylor, V Tuigamala, T May, M Wood; R Andrew (capt), H Charlton; G Graham, R Nesdale, M Hurter (I Peel, 47), H Vyvyan, G Archer, P Walton (J Rule, 47), R Beattie, J Cartmell.

Referee: C White (Cheltenham).