Rugby Union: Woods in the swim as Irish advance

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Northampton 6 London Irish 21

AS FAR as London Irish are concerned, Niall Woods walks on water. He has made a habit this season of scoring tries against Northampton. Earlier this month he ran in four at Franklin's Gardens.

But there is little doubt that the most recent of his half-dozen was probably the most telling, helping the Exiles to steal a march on the Saints in their muddy, but stirring, Tetley's Bitter Cup fifth-round tie.

It came at the start of the second half and proved crucial. The Ireland wing intercepted a pass intended for Craig Moir, but the ball rebounded off the Scotland A wing's shoulder and Woods snapped it up, covering 70 yards and leaving the defence wallowing in his wake.

Amazingly Woods, who also offers sound goal-kicking and much improved defensive qualities, cannot make it into the full Ireland squad, let alone the team. He has to make do with a place on the wing in Ireland A's match against France A at Donnybrook on Friday.

"I think he's good enough to play for Ireland," said former All Black Steve bachop, the Exiles' brilliant fly-half. "He has great skills, he's very quick and he is a great reader of the game."

Another of his team-mates Brendan Venter, the former Springbok endorsed Bachop's view, saying: "Niall is playing fantastic rugby. He has raw pace and other wonderful attributes."

The man himself remains stoical. He said: "It is hard when you are playing over here, the selectors don't see you. At least the last couple of games have been on television."

In fact the Irish selectors should be able to appreciate how well the whole team is playing. Even the miserly Dick Best, the director of rugby, was almost philanthropic as he extolled his side's display. "Today was one of the best performances I have seen by a London Irish side."

It was a minor miracle that the game was played given the amount of rain - 31 inches - that has fallen since November. It was all credit to both teams that they made light of the surface and attempted to play as if on the hard grounds of the high veldt.

Saints had a go first, spending some 25 of the first 28 minutes in the Irish half, but not able to take advantage of the enforced absence of Ireland lock Malcolm O'Kelly, who left the field after 20 minutes and will not be back for four to six weeks.

Saints could and should have scored, if not tries then at least a couple of penalties, but each time they opted to kick for the corners. It was a criminal waste and they were duly punished.

Woods it was who landed two penalties, the second on the stroke of half- time - psychologically uplifting, but not too damaging in the context of the match.

However the interception did for the Saints. Heads might not have gone down, but haloes slipped and so did the ball. Too frequently the likes of Nick Beal at full-back and Pat Lam, normally so reliable, were guilty of careless drops. Paul Grayson's two penalties were too, little too late. And the admirable Conor O'Shea's try confirmed a place in the quarter- finals.

Northampton: Penalties Grayson 2.

London Irish: Tries Woods, O'Shea; Conversion Woods; Penalties Woods 3.

Northampton: N Beal; C Moir (A Northey, 61), A Blyth, M Allen (D Dantiacq, 62), B Cohen; P Grayson, M Dawson (capt); G Pagel, F Mendez, M Stewart, R Metcalfe, J Phillips, D Mackinnon (C Allan, 71), G Seely, P Lam.

London Irish: C O'Shea (capt); J Bishop, N Burrows, B Venter, N Woods; S Bachop, K Putt (P Richards, 61); N Hatley, R Kirke, R Hardwick (K Fullman, 67), R Strudwick, M O'Kelly (M Bird, 19, M Howe, 80), J Boer, I Feaunati, R Gallacher.

Referee: E Morrison (Bristol)