Rugby Union: Woods steamrollers limp Saints

Northampton 8 London Irish 32
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The Independent Online
IT IS not particularly easy to play 100 per cent of the rugby on five per cent possession, but the super-charged Super 12ers of London Irish managed it comfortably at Franklin's Gardens last night. An extraordinary first-half performance, as rich in imagination as it was fast in reactive speed, gave the Exiles 17 unanswered points and left Northampton looking more pedestrian than 15 law lords on a go-slow.

For all their Premiership pretensions, the Saints could not even begin to fathom a way back. Within a minute of the restart, indeed, Niall Woods made it 22 unanswered points by ambling into the left corner for his second try of the evening. It was mind-boggling stuff, based firmly on the wit of Kevin Putt, the craft of Steve Bachop and the implacable defensive commitment of two proud South Africans, Brendan Venter and Jake Boer, and an English colleague, Nick Burrows, who just happened to learn his trade in the Eastern Cape.

One flashing thrust from Conor O'Shea aside, it took the visitors 20 minutes to lay a meaningful hand on the ball. When they did, however, they made more capital, more quickly, than a bevy of euro traders. Boer, Ryan Strudwick and Kieron Dawson made the early running with some craftily pilfered possession 70 metres out and with Bachop and Burrows riding shotgun down the left touchline, Woods had few problems in completing a majestic opening score.

Eight minutes later, Woods added a penalty following more productive work from Boer, who was positively on fire. And a minute after that? Another remarkable try, manufactured by the long-striding O'Shea and completed by Burrows to the left of the posts. Had Pat Lam, who loves a war, not clattered Malcolm O'Kelly into touch at the right flag, the Irish would have been half-way back to the Sunbury with the points.

Led from the front by Federico Mendez, who poured more raw energy into a single 80-minute performance than in his season and a half at Bath, Northampton tightened up their act in the second half. They even managed a try of their own from Andy Blyth, who curved his way to the line following Craig Moir's bold run into a phalanx of mean-eyed Irish tacklers. But it was nowhere near enough to deny inspired opponents revelling in the scent of blood.

In fact, there would be even more for the Exiles - and Woods in particular - to celebrate as a fascinating contest entered its death throes. On 74 minutes, the long-serving wing was on hand to field a ricocheting ball and score as Dawson and Rob Gallacher, a No 8 replacement for Isaac Fea'unati, hit Moir with the mother of all double tackles. Three minutes later, he claimed a fourth as Venter hit him with a perfectly weighted round-the- corner pass. It was no more than he, and his club-mates, deserved.

On this evidence, a fourth straight victory for a side considered likely relegation fodder at the start of the campaign, a top five Premiership finish - and, therefore, a possible European Cup place next season - is very much on the agenda. Dick Best, their hard-bitten coach, will not be counting his chickens; indeed, he probably spat out a few dressing- room barbs at those he considered responsible for Northampton's solitary try. But, whisper it quietly, "old sulphuric" will be quite happy today. Yes, honestly.

Northampton: Try Blyth; Penalty Grayson. London Irish: Tries Woods 4, Burrows; Conversions Woods 2; Penalty Woods.

Northampton: N Beal; C Moir, A Blyth, M Allen, J Sleightholme (D Dantiacq 57); P Grayson, D Malone; G Pagel, F Mendez (C Johnson 80), M Stewart (M Hynes 68), R Metcalfe (J Phillips 61), T Rodber (capt), G Seely, P Lam, A Pountney.

London Irish: C O'Shea (capt); S Berridge, N Burrows, B Venter, N Woods; S Bachop, K Putt; M Worsley (N Hatley 55), R Kirke, R Hardwick (K Fullman H-T), R Strudwick, M O'Kelly, J Boer, I Fea'unati (R Gallacher 60), K Dawson (K Spicer 76).

Referee: S Piercy (Yorkshire).