Ashton keeps Saints afloat in deepest pool

Northampton 30 Treviso 18: Former league wing scores two tries as Italian champions put up a brave fight
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The Independent Online

In the choppiest of Heineken Cup pools, which features the champions of the French, Celtic and Italian leagues, bonus points will be crucial in the fight for a quarter-final berth. Northampton were thankful for four tries around half-time, two of them from Chris Ashton, a piranha of a right wing who is on the periphery of England selection.

Ashton, a 22-year-old former Wigan rugby league starlet, spent a couple of days with the national side before the autumn internationals, having been in the Saxons squad last year. Since joining Saints in 2007 he has racked up 65 tries in 59 games and his lightning pace and sinewy strength is growing on more good judges by the week.

"He's a finisher and a poacher and he understands where to be at the right time," said Jim Mallinder, Northampton's director of rugby. "That's what rugby league teaches you."

What yesterday's first half taught Northampton was patience. Despite Mallinder's insistence that complacency would not be a problem, it was. They tried flashy offloads when they were not on; Shane Geraghty was suckered into clearing kicks which were misjudged; and the Treviso scrummage was more troublesome than a home pack containing the Lions prop Euan Murray might have expected. A home win always looked likely, but with Treviso 13-3 up after 35 minutes it was not straightforward.

It was, though, frustrating to watch. Scrum-halves waiting at rucks until the ball was presented just-so; scrums re-set when the front rows could have been left to get on with it – this was rugby by Kim and Aggie, too fussy for its own good. Ben Foden, who has been ignored by England of late, took it on himself to generate the missing momentum, cruising through Treviso's centres from an almost standing start until an attempt to chip the full-back, Luke McLean, ended in a ricochet and a knock-on.

Treviso, whose 9-8 win over Perpignan had shaken up the pool on the first weekend – Perpignan in turn defeated Northampton in France before losing by a point in Munster on Friday night – leant heavily on their long-serving South African fly-half, Marius Goosen, one of eight foreign-born players in their starting XV. A drop-goal off his left boot and another with his right were added to a try in the sixth minute by the flanker Benjamin Vermaak, who charged Geraghty down in the 22. Tobias Botes converted and Geraghty kicked a penalty after 12 minutes.

How relieved Northampton must have been for a try in added time. Geraghty booted a penalty to touch, Phil Dowson's blind-side drive was held up and the resulting scrum yielded a penalty. A tap-and-run brought another penalty and after a pile-up on the right the move reached the left wing, where despite a fine tackle by Alessandro Zanni on Jon Clarke the ball was slipped to Foden, who scored. Geraghty shanked the conversion.

"I was confident Shane would sort himself out," said Mallinder, reflecting on the fly-half's role in the three tries in the first 13 minutes of the second half. Soane Tonga'uiha's burst into the 22 and a swift transfer left sent Joe Ansbro over. Italian protests of "avanti!" went unheard as Dylan Hartley's pass after Geraghty's prompt allowed Foden to feed Ashton. Then Geraghty, slightly off-balance, fashioned a one-handed pass to Courtney Lawes to breach the 22 again and Geraghty, Dowson, James Downey and Hartley worked Ashton into the corner.

A a proper spanking was possible, but Zanni seized on a ball squirting clear from a Saints scrummage and Goosen muscled through for a try in the 60th minute. Lawes went to the sin-bin for a dangerous tackle and it took a penalty by Stephen Myler to make sure for Saints.

Treviso are gearing up to be one of Italy's two super-clubs joining the Magners League next season and they will be no easy beats next weekend. Franco Smith, their coach, praised Northampton's "structure" but tipped Munster to finish top of the pool.

He added, darkly: "A lot of the 50-50 calls, as you usually find, went for the home side. It will be good to play Northampton in Italy."

Northampton Saints: B Foden; C Ashton, J Clarke, J Downey (S Myler, 64), J Ansbro (C Mayor, 67); S Geraghty, L Dickson (A Dickens, 64); S Tonga'uiha (B Mujati, 67), D Hartley (capt; B Sharman, 71), E Murray (S Bonorino, 54), C Lawes, C Day (J Kruger, 54), P Dowson, R Wilson, N Best (S Gray, 64).

Treviso: L McLean; A Vilk, A Sbargi, G Garcia (F Waters, 55), T Botes; M Goosen, F Semenzato (S Picone, 57); M Rizzo (A Allori, 40), L Ghiraldini (D Vidal, 40), I Fernandez Rouyet (Rizzo, 57), A Pavanello (capt; E Pavanello, 57), C van Zyl, B Vermaak, D Kingi, A Zanni.

Referee: P Gauzere (France).

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