Mallinder saves resources to repel French invaders

London Irish 20 Northampton 26
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The Independent Online

While the Cobblers half of Northampton trembles anxiously on the precipice of relegation from the Football League, the town's rugby-playing, Double-chasing Saints are excited at what the next five weeks might bring. Sunday's Heineken Cup semi-final against Perpignan could be the start of an intense but rewarding run-in.

Of course it could all go horribly wrong, as it did last year when Northampton were defeated in the Heineken Cup quarter-final and Premiership semi-final. They anticipate a mighty scrummage in Milton Keynes from the French club, hence the withdrawal of five members of the Saints pack during this penultimate league fixture. It put the visitors off their stroke and London Irish fought back to trail 23-20, having been 23-6 adrift.

Unless Bath, in sixth, win at Newcastle this weekend, Northampton will have qualified for the Premiership semi-finals before their final regular-season match at home to Leeds on 7 May. Jim Mallinder, Northampton's director of rugby, was asked whether, in that event, he might rest players against Leeds. "It is something we would consider," Mallinder said.

Northampton's scrum is better than most and their line-out nabbed a couple of crucial throws from Irish at the end, but do they have the mental and physical capacity to capture two trophies? "We don't want to be in the same position as last year where our season just comes to a halt," said wing Chris Ashton, who scored two tries and helped thwart two late attacks by Topsy Ojo. "I think you learn from the hurt you feel when you lose those games."

Any untoward knocks are a pain, too, and Northampton's fly-half Steve Myler needed treatment after helping Ashton maul Ojo over the touchline. Television pictures appeared to show Myler taking a punch on the jaw from Delon Armitage, though it was not spotted by the officials.

The Exiles may need points from their last match at Leicester to qualify for the Heineken Cup, and though this was their seventh five-figure attendance of the season, they made an operating loss of £6m last year. Toby Booth, the London Irish head coach, hinted that flanker Steffon Armitage might yet go to Toulon if the French club bid enough and said: "It's not getting any easier to be competitive. It is not just about players. You see Leicester having a training base for £4m and these things add to people's ability to attract players. We're trying to compete in a world in which we find it difficult to do so."

London Irish: Tries Thorpe, Mapusua; Conversions Homer (2); Penalties Homer (2). Northampton: Tries Ashton (2); Conversions Myler (2); Penalties Myler (4).

London Irish D Armitage; T Ojo, E Seveali'i (J Joseph, 60), S Mapusua, T Homer; D Bowden, P Hodgson (D Allinson, 55); C Dermody (capt; M Lahiff, 71), D Paice, F Rautenbach (P Ion, 63), N Kennedy, B Casey (G Johnson, 63), J Gibson, S Armitage, G Stowers (R Thorpe, 55).

Northampton B Foden; C Ashton, J Clarke, J Downey, P Diggin; S Myler, L Dickson; S Tonga'uiha (A Waller, 58), D Hartley (capt; B Sharman, 58), B Mujati (T Mercey, 58), C Lawes (M Sorenson, 64), C Day, C Clark (M Easter, 64), P Dowson, R Wilson.

Referee D Rose (Warwickshire).

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