Rugby Union: Tigers left chasing shadows

Northampton 46 Leicester 24
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NO CLUB has managed the transition from amateur to professional more successfully than Northampton. Almost seamlessly, they have blended the old with the new, the traditional with the innovative and, by recognising that the game's deep roots are as precious as the budding shoots, they have made Franklins Gardens one of the most appealing venues on the Premiership circuit.

Yesterday, in the late summer sunshine and before a large and enthusiastic crowd, it was a magnificent sight, the pitch looking for all the world as if it had been produced and laid by Wilton. It was possibly Ian McGeechan's final legacy to the club, for it was he who insisted that if Northampton were to play quality rugby they would require the truest of surfaces.

Unfortunately quality rugby also requires players of high calibre. Quality cannot always alas be measured in points scored and, despite the size of Northampton's victory, the fact is that it was secured by default. If Leicester were unrecognisable as the side who had won the title last season, it was for the very good reason that it was almost impossible to recognise any of the players who had carried them so triumphantly throughout that campaign.

Northampton have also suffered in the cull of their internationals prior to the World Cup but not to the same extent and they tortured Leicester in those areas where the Tigers are traditionally strong, namely in the scrums and the tight situations from which they generate so much of their power.

Garry Pagel may not have been built with a fifth gear, or even a fourth one for that matter, but he does enough damage in first to compensate. While Leicester were left to survey the twisted wreckage of their scrummage, Northampton's forwards drove and rolled, gaining huge chunks of territory. Their first two tries were scored from close range by their back row forwards, Grant Seely and their industrious captain Don Mackinnon, both of whom later went off with injuries.

By that time, however, Northampton were running free, scoring six tries in what was ultimately a thorough hiding of their fiercest rivals. Leicester didn't exactly help themselves. One lost count of the times that they conceded penalties on the ground, an area where, in the past, and with players better versed in subtle skulduggery than the present crop, they have escaped unpunished. But not yesterday under the nose of Ed Morrison. In another important area, however, Mr Morrison was less vigilant. There were a number of occasions when players were blatantly bodychecked after kicking ahead. The chip kick is a fine attacking weapon, and if it is to survive it will require the protection of the referees.

As so often happens in a riot of try-scoring, it was the vanquished who struck first when Nnamdi Ezulike touched down following a chapter of Northampton accidents. Andy Goode, Leicester's young fly-half with the hoof of a mule, had created the attacking position with a mighty clearance to touch but so off-line was Steve Walter's throw that it was picked up at the tail by Paul Gustard. Ben Kay drove towards the line before the ball was moved with all haste to Ezulike. Order was quickly restored, Mackinnon and Seely scoring their tries within four minutes of each other.

Tim Stimpson, the most dangerous of the Leicester runners, and fed too many crumbs by Ali Hepher for the comfort of the home support, kicked his second penalty before Northampton scored their third try, which also happened to be the best moment of the match.

Hepher, penned deep inside his half, kicked upfield. The ball, bouncing wickedly, eluded both Stimpson and Jon Sleightholme but sat up invitingly for Craig Moir. The Northampton full-back was brought down by Ezulike but not before he had released the ball to Ben Cohen, who scored close enough to the posts for Hepher to kick his second conversion. Four minutes later, Matt Allen scored the fourth try and despite the fact that Northampton carelessly allowed Goode to look round and score underneath the posts on the stroke of half-time, it was already clear that Leicester would have too much to do and too little to offer in the second half.

Northampton: C Moir (R Jackson, 38); J Sleightholme, A Northey, M Allen, B Cohen; A Hepher, D Malone (J Bramhall, 69); G Pagel, S Walter, M Stewart (M Volland, 70), R Metcalfe, J Phillips, D Mackinnon (capt, S Hepher, 63), S Holmes, G Seely (C Allan, 28).

Leicester: T Stimpson; G Murphy, P Howard, C Joiner, N Ezulike; A Goode, J Hamilton; D Jelley, D West (capt), K Fourie (P Freshwater, 69), D Zaltzman (A Balding, 60), B Kay (P Shore 28), P Gustard, L Moody, W Johnson.

Referee: E Morrison (Bristol).