Rugby Union: Walter revives Saints

Allied Dunbar Premiership: Hooker's double flatters flawed Northampton as Bedford fall at the last; Northampton 24 London Irish 19
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The Independent Online
FOR NORTHAMPTON this was the resumption of normal service following the return of their World Cup players. But for most of the game and until a remarkable recovery in the second half when they scored 24 points in 15 minutes it appeared that the sooner there was another break in transmission the better it would be.

Throughout the first half they were woeful, and it was hardly a compliment to London Irish to report that they were 13 points ahead without really trying. The fact is that they were not a lot better and, despite Northampton's sterling play towards the end, neither side are likely to win anything of consequence this season.

It was admittedly a damp and dismal day and the game was played on a greasy surface in front of a crowd greatly reduced by the counter attraction at Hampden Park. That, however, is where the excuses end. These are professionals, after all, and if it is decreed as part of their contract that the match should be played at the North Pole, the players are required to perform.

Yet for so much of this game Northampton succeeded in running through the encyclopaedia of rugby cock-ups. From knock-on to getting in front of the kicker at the restarts they committed every cardinal sin in the book. As the first half meandered to its close their spirits sank even lower when James Bramhall, who had come on as a replacement scrum-half for Dom Malone after just five minutes, was taken off by stretcher with a rib injury. This caused even more disruption to a disjointed back division. Paul Grayson, who had missed with two penalty kicks at goal, neither difficult, moved to scrum-half with Ali Hepher coming in at fly-half.

Northampton's single hope at this time lay in the superiority of their scrummage, but even here they were thwarted by a mixture of their opponents' determination and their own carelessness. There was no better example of this than, when 13 points down, they had bludgeoned their way up to the London Irish line only to lose control of the ball at a wheel.

The Irish did at least offer variety and imagination in other areas of the field. Their backs, capably marshalled by Stephen Bachop, were eagerly inventive when they were given room. Justin Bishop was full of running on the right wing and Conor O'Shea's intrusions from full back always carried menace.

Despite their difficulties up front therefore, the Irish gained relief often enough to keep their forwards in the game. They also had the priceless ability to take their chances, the first after just three minutes when Bachop switched play cleverly to the left. Jarrod Cunningham made ground before passing inside Mark Gabey who sent Nick Harvey over for the try. Cunningham converted and before half time he had stretched the Irish lead with two penalties. The second immediately following Don Mackinnon's departure to the sin bin for stamping. Harvey broke into the 22 and Northampton were penalised under their posts for playing the ball from an off-side position.

Cunningham's third penalty two minutes into the second half appeared to confirm the pattern of the first half. Then two things happened within minutes of each other. The elongated Richard Metcalfe came on as a replacement for Mackinnon and Ryan Strudwick, the Irish lock, was ordered to the sin bin.

In order to accommodate Metcalfe in the second row Tim Rodber, who might as well have stayed in the dressing-room for all the interest he had shown up to this point, switched to the flank. With yet more ballast in their pack, Northampton renewed their effort.

A line-out inside the Irish 22, a powerful drive and Steve Walter scored. Five minutes later and a carbon copy of that try but this time on the other side of the field with Walter again the scorer brought the Saints to within four points. Cunningham lifted the siege with his fourth penalty before Grayson playing now behind an inspired pack, levelled the scores, picking up the shrapnel left by his recharged forwards and racing over under the posts.

There was now only one winner. Northampton were irresistible and another savage drive brought the winning score when Rodber rolled over the line to give Northampton the lead for the first time in the match.

The Irish were tired and distinctly fed up and their cup of woe over- spilled when Jake Boer, with two men unmarked outside him and with a free passage to the Northampton line, was tackled in possession.

Their merger with the now defunct London Scottish and Richmond offers positive proof that three into one don't go. On the evidence of this the Irish are going nowhere, but neither, one suspects, are Northampton who should never have been allowed to recover from the first half.

Northampton: N Beal; C Moir, A Bateman, M Allen, B Cohen; P Grayson, D Malone (J Bramhall, 5; A Hepher 34); G Pagel, S Walter, M Scelzo, J Phillips, T Rodber, D MacKinnon (R Metcalfe, 51), P Lam (capt), B Pountney.

London Irish: C O'Shea (capt); J Bishop, R Todd, B Venter, J Cunningham; S Bachop, S Hatley; N Hatley (M Worsley, 64), M Howe (A Flavin, 60), K Fullman (S Halford, 40), N Harvey, R Strudwick, J Boer, M Gabey (R Gallagher, 54), K Dawson (A Mower, 64).

Referee: C White (RFU)