Care bears Leeds' burden

Northampton 21 Leeds 18
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The Independent Online

A potential injury to one of England's back line before next week's opening Six Nations fixture, a punch by a former All Black scrum-half, a simple conversion missed in the final minutes and a last-ditch penalty to secure victory. This relegation battle had it all, even confusion over the timekeeping and a possible two minutes too many being played as the official timekeeper, the referee and the fourth official disagreed with each other.

Who knows? Not them, clearly, so certainly not the rest of us. But the truth is that matches are won and lost by the players and the decisions they make under pressure. And apart from the good news for Saints fans as Bruce Reihana successfully kicked the winning penalty after Danny Care had been isolated at the back of a scrum and held on, there was succour and relief for the international coaches. Not one of their charges suffered injury to threaten their selection, although when Justin Marshall punched Ben Cohen in the 44th minute, a connection that sent the aggressor to the sin-bin and the receiver to the treatment table, it looked like Andy Robinson's back-line problems were getting worse.

Fortunately, Cohen returned with no serious damage to his face, "just three or four stitches" according to his coach, Paul Grayson, and continued to have a fine game. Since his summer off he has rediscovered the zest that makes him such a threatening runner at his best, and when allowed to do so by the infuriating Carlos Spencer, he made ground and challenged the Leeds defence.

This was shown perfectly in the 38th minute when he came off his wing, collected a pop pass from Spencer and charged through the weak tackle of Gordon Ross. The breach was not wasted, Jon Clarke claiming the score. It was simple but effective and showed all three men, Spencer, Cohen and Clarke at their best. Indeed, Clarke is starting to look a very serious outside centre indeed, a point acknowledged by his selection for England A.

However, with Tom Biggs in equally fine form for Leeds - his brace of tries in the first half were testament both to his own speed and to Leeds' desire to attack space - the match was delicately poised to the very end, and it was then that Care won and lost the match within one minute.

He found a gap after many phases for a try that levelled the scores at 18-18 but, and this will worry Scottish fans, Gordon Ross pulled the straightforward conversion wide. Then Care was caught and relegation quite possibly decided.

Northampton: B Reihana (co-capt); S Lamont, J Clarke, D Quinlan (R Kydd, 59), B Cohen; C Spencer, M Robinson (J Howard, 73); T Smith, S Thompson (co-capt), C Budgen (S Emms, 73), Damien Browne, P Lord (D Gerard, 73), P Tupai (S Harding, 48), Daniel Browne, B Lewitt.

Leeds: R de Marigny; A Snyman, R Vickerman (D Doherty, 48), C Bell, T Biggs; G Ross, J Marshall (D Care, 64); M Shelley (K Lensing, 58), R Rawlinson (G Bulloch, 46), R Gerber, S Hooper (capt), T Palmer, S Morgan (J Crane, 46), N Thomas (J Dunbar, 46), R Parks (D Hyde, 64)..

Referee: T Spreadbury (Gloucestershire).