Rugby Union: Steele employs a sin-bin decoy

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The Independent Online
Northampton 21 Neath 12

POSSESSION INCONTINENCE is a debilitating condition; and Northampton suffered so many bouts of it during the second half of this Heineken European Cup match at Franklin's Gardens that it ran through the team like a plague. Were it not for the fact that there was general incompetence on a similarly lowly scale from the Saints' backs, and a refereeing display which fell well short of what is required at this level, the amount of ball spilled by Northampton would have been the sole talking point.

In point of fact, before the memory of this misshapen game was consigned to the dustbin the Northampton coach, John Steele, wanted only to talk of the sin-bin. That is because neither European competition has one; only a system of red and yellow cards. "Neath spoiled well," reflected Steele. "But without a sin-bin, the more unscrupulous sides will soon work out that it pays to spoil, because all they will concede is a penalty while keeping all their players on the pitch."

Steele had a point, though in making it as articulately as he did he deflected the questions from those who sought an explanation as to why Saints were so woefully deficient in almost all areas of their game. And why, having started so promisingly with two tries in the opening quarter to go 15-3 ahead, were they unable to pull away from opponents who had little more to offer than Matt Pearce's kicking, allied to a stubborn refusal to roll over compliantly against Steele's bigger and better-equipped Northampton.

It did not help that the referee, Bertie Smith, was so lax at policing offside at ruck and maul. With so many persistent offenders there was always the yellow-card sanction, but the Irishman declined to countenance it, as Neath frustrated Northampton at almost every breakdown.

Even so, with the penalty count 14-5 in Saints' favour during the first half, when Neath were unable to win a single line-out, the home side should have won more comfortably. While Matt Allen banged away to no noticeable effect, none of those around him revealed the wit to make more of Saints' attacking options. When they did spin it wide, the ball was invariably spilled, so Northampton were only six points ahead going into the closing quarter, after Pearce had dropped a goal and kicked three penalties.

Paul Grayson finished off Neath with his third penalty to leave Northampton wondering if they are capable of making a meaningful impression in their first season in the European Cup. To do so they are first going to have to work out how to cope with teams who spoil, how to come to terms with indifferent refereeing, and how best to maximise their possession.

Northampton: Tries Lam, Holmes; Conversion Grayson; Penalties Grayson 3. Neath: Penalties Pearce 3; Dropped Goal Pearce.

Northampton: N Beal; J Sleightholme, A Bateman, M Allen, B Cohen; P Grayson, I Vass; G Pagel, S Walter (C Johnson, 60), M Scelzo, J Phillips, R Metcalfe, T Rodber (D Mackinnon, 78), S Holmes, P Lam (capt).

Neath: G John; M Singer, D Tieuti, T Davies, S Williams; M Pearce (C Rees, 80), R Jones; D Jones (L Gerard, 70), M Davies, A Millward, M Turner (A Codling, 53), A Jackson, S van Rensburg, B Sinkinson, R Phillips (capt).

Referee: B Smith (Ireland).