Clarke strikes help Saints go staggering on

Northampton 41 - Bedford 8
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The Independent Online

Results elsewhere may yet state otherwise, but the widening of the gap between the Premiership and the rest was glaringly evident here with a weakened Northampton putting six tries on Bedford, who were close to their hosts in geographical terms only.

In the capable hands of the former Springbok coach Rudi Straeuli, Bedford might have fancied their chances against a Saints team missing half a dozen internationals. There was a short cloudburst before kick-off, at which point Rudolph may have looked skywards to say "hmm, looks like rain, dear". The match itself was no joke - the incentive to win went much deeper than parochial bragging rights and Northampton, at the bottom of the Premiership after nine straight league defeats, took no chances.

The cup offers the shortest and, for Saints, by far the likeliest route into Europe next season. So the cavalier approach was not an option and the losing cup finalists in three of the last five seasons went up-the-jumper from the off. At fly-half, Paul Grayson kicked the corners; up front, close driving from line-out and ruck was designed to sap the strength of opponents placed sixth in National League One, and selecting from a full squad.

A penalty by Grayson gave Northampton the lead in the 10th minute, and the visitors' struggles to cope round the fringes were soon reflected in a yellow card for Arthur Brenton, one of an all-ex-Northampton front five in Bedford blue. Overall, Bedford had 10 former Saints in their starting XV, the majority of whom had made more appearances on this ground than 20 miles down the A428 at Goldington Road.

Four of Northampton's leading lights were newly hors de combat after last week's Heineken Cup defeat in Toulouse, although not from the late-night fracas in the Frog and Rosbif bar. Saints' chairman Keith Barwell used yesterday's programme notes to castigate a local newspaper man for reporting the incident, while conceding there had been "a bit of fisticuffs between our players". Barwell said the matter was closed. If he is wise, that ought to go for shooting the messenger, too.

On the field, while Brenton cooled his heels, Bedford buckled and Grayson's neat no-look pass to John Rudd presented the wing with Northampton's first try after 18 minutes. It was far from one-way traffic, and Ali Hepher, Grayson's understudy in several seasons gone by, created a few thrills from Saints spills under garryowens aimed at the home 22. Genuine Bedford openings were few, however, and the best of them in the first half was scuppered when Mike Staten veered away from his support after a 40-metre break. Staten should have known no man is an island.

Instead, the full-back Leigh Hinton collected Bedford's first points with a penalty on the half-hour. The offence was a dabble in a ruck by Northampton's Ireland Under-19 flanker, Brett McNamee, who formed an unfamiliar back row with Mark Soden and the new signing Ross Beattie, a Scotland cap. When McNamee later went off injured, Northampton had no back-five replacements available and their captain and England hooker Steve Thompson had to switch to flanker.

None of this made much difference to the eventual result. Mark Tucker went over for Saints just before the interval, and although Brenton was held up over the line by Tucker and Jon Clarke early in the second half, Saints were mostly on top. Clarke finished off tries in some style after 58 and 72 minutes and in between there was another by Wylie Human, who finished off a counter-attack by Rudd prompted by Ian Vass's ill-judged kick to the wide.

A chorus of "When The Saints Go Marching In" hinted at the recent revival in Saints' spirit, but Bedford deserved their swan song with a try by the mountainous recent recruit from New Zealand, Sione Tonga'uiha. With Johnny Howard dispatched to the sin-bin not long after replacing Mark Robinson, Bedford put the resulting penalty to touch and - unsurprisingly for a specimen of 21 stones - Tonga'uiha bundled over.

But Northampton worked Grant Seely into the right corner in the seventh minute of added time, and Shane Drahm's conversion signposted Saints' path into the last eight.

Northampton: J Clarke; J Rudd, M Tucker (N Starling, 61), M Stcherbina, W Human; P Grayson (S Drahm, 73), M Robinson (J Howard, 64); C Budgen (S Emms, 67), S Thompson (capt, J van Wyk, 73), R Morris (B Sturgess, 67), G Seely, D Browne, R Beattie, M Soden, B McNamee (D Richmond, 56).

Bedford: L Hinton; B Whetstone, M Staten, M Allen (capt), C Moir (J Hinkins, 77); A Hepher (D Malone, 67), I Vass; M Volland (S Tonga'uiha, 61), C Johnson (M Price, 77), M Stewart (J Brooks, 19), J Phillips (A Phillips, 77), A Brenton, N Strauss, J Paramore (S Brady, 67), B Lewitt.

Referee: R Debney (Leicestershire).

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