Supporters of the international governing body's peculiar new laws continue to insist that the changes are merely "on trial", but poor old Worcester might be forgiven for wondering whether sentence has already been passed upon their particular brand of possession rugby. One of the Premiership's more structured teams, they entered the union code's post-structuralist age with a trip to Northampton, back in the mainstream after a season amongst the flotsam and jetsam of National Division One. It always looked like a tough ask, given the home side's inevitable energy surge, but there was more – far more – to the visitors' defeat yesterday than a bad case of wrong time, wrong place.
When Mike Ruddock, a Grand Slam-winning coach with Wales three years ago, joined Worcester at the start of last season, he made it his business to widen their horizons and broaden their game. God knows, it needed broadening. Old-fashioned in the extreme, they were the Premiership's version of a historical re-enactment society, the Sealed Knot of English rugby; indeed, it was a wonder they didn't take the field armed with pikes and muskets. Ruddock has added some pizzazz: by recruiting Chris Latham, the wonderful counter-attacking full-back from Wallaby land, to play alongside Rico Gear, Miles Benjamin and Sam Tuitupou in the back line, he is adding it still. But Worcester's approach is still based around iron security in the disciplines of scrum, line-out and ball retention – the very things the law changes are now threatening.
Largely through the efforts of their two flankers, the abrasive Irish blind-side specialist Neil Best and the confusingly cosmopolitan breakaway Scott Gray, the Saints wiped Worcester clean off the face of Franklin's Gardens whenever a turnover opportunity arose. Northampton's forwards also piled through the visitors' line-out in their legions, the scale of which had not been seen since the Battle of Helm's Deep in Lord of the Rings Part II. As a result of all this, the scrum-half Matthew Powell had a thoroughly unpleasant time of it at the base of the Worcester pack, while Latham and company spent what must have seemed like hour after hour on the back foot.
Jim Mallinder, the Northampton coach, generously declined to acknowledge that he and his colleagues had comprehensively out-thought their opponents, but he readily admitted that breakdown management had played a significant part in his tactical ponderings. "We've worked really hard on our act in the tackle area," he said, "and if referees are going to insist that people stay on their feet at the breakdown, that's fantastic. In this area, at least, we're fans of the new approach."
If truth be told, he must also be relieved that the experimental law variations have driven out the driving maul, so to speak. It was never a major weapon in Northampton's armoury; Worcester, on the other hand, have long viewed it as a banker source of points. One way or another, the "new rugby" will suit the Saints, assuming they consistently generate the pace and passion in evidence yesterday.
For his part, Ruddock confessed to "huge frustration". He was wholly exasperated by his players' collective inability to present clean possession at the ruck – even Tuitupou, usually so reliable in this area, let a couple of hard-won balls slip away in contact – and was even more startled by what he called "interpretative matters". In other words, the refereeing.
But Sean Davey was there to follow orders, and follow them he did. It took him all of half a minute to punish sundry Worcester forwards for going off their feet as the busy hooker Paul Shields smashed Gear with the first of half a dozen heavy close-quarter tackles, and he did not let up for so much as a second. Northampton committed their own indiscretions – frankly, it is next to impossible for everyone to stay upright when people are hitting breakdowns in numbers – but Worcester beat them hands down in the penalty count. Sadly for them, it was the only contest they looked like winning.
For all Shields' hard work amid the hurly-burly, it was not until Dylan Hartley joined the fun early in the third quarter that Northampton pulled away. He had been on the field only four minutes when he appeared in space towards the left touchline and dummied a pass before breaking the tackles of Powell (no great achievement) and Dale Rassmussen (very definitely a feather in the cap) to make it across the line on the second bounce and put his side 11-6 ahead.
England's hooker-in-waiting has always had a touch of the x-factor about him but there have been questions over his work in the tight. According to Mallinder, things are improving. "He spends hours on his throwing and is working hard on his scrummaging," said the director of rugby. "We know he can carry and pass. He has to keep doing the things he does well while building up the rest of his game, and at the moment he's developing quickly." So why didn't he start? "Paul Shields played really well in pre-season, and we always promised that the people who did that would be rewarded in selection."
Worcester conceded the try to Hartley just after their flanker, Tom Wood, had been yellow-carded for some jiggery-pokery on the floor. But they were at full strength when Jon Clarke, an England fringe player before being stricken by a grisly ankle injury a couple of seasons ago, scored a disconcertingly easy try in the right corner. The combative Tuitupou replied almost immediately by stampeding upfield to create a score for Aleki Lutui, but the New Zealand centre infringed from the restart and presented Bruce Reihana with the three points that took Northampton out of range. Thus the visitors headed west with a big zero in the points department, and a big fat headache to go with it.
Northampton: Tries Hartley, Clarke. Conversion: Reihana. Penalties: Reihana 3. Worcester: Try Lutui. Conversion: Jones. Penalties: Jones 2.
Northampton: B Reihana (capt); C Ashton, J Clarke, J Downey, S Lamont; C Spencer, L Dickson (B Foden 78); S Tonga'uiha (T Smith 62), P Shields (D Hartley 48), E Murray, I Fernandez Lobbe (M Lord 70), C Day, N Best (M Hopley 68), S Gray, R Wilson.
Worcester: C Latham; R Gear, D Rasmussen, S Tuitupou, M Benjamin; M Jones, M Powell (R Powell 62); M Mullan, A Lutui, T Taumoepeau (C Horsman 53), G Rawlinson (capt), C Gillies (W Bowley 62), N Talei, T Wood (J Collins 59), K Horstmann.
Referee: S Davey (London).Reuse content