There are funny old games in the laugh-out-loud sense – it is difficult to reflect on the Gloucester-Bath cabaret a little over a week ago without falling into hysterics – and funny old games in the peculiar sense.
However, Sunday’s contest at Franklin’s Gardens was just about as peculiar as it gets, partly because Northampton did everything in their power to fritter away a 29-point lead and very nearly succeeded, and partly because Shane Geraghty, one of the great lost talents of English rugby, left the stadium without the man-of-the-match gong.
On the scale of rugby weirdness, the Geraghty decision was an 11 out of 10. The recipient of the award, the home side’s tight-head prop Salesi Ma’afu, put in a very decent shift: indeed, the earth-shaking swallow dive that marked the 19st Wallaby’s first try for the club was eye-catching in the extreme, if not quite a thing of beauty. But Geraghty’s contribution was off the scale, particularly as he twice received the full “Samoan Smash” treatment from the centre George Pisi: perfectly legal tackles that nevertheless posed a threat to life and limb.
Despite Pisi’s interjections, there was more wit and imagination in the former red-rose midfielder’s performance than we have seen from many of his rival outside-halves over the full stretch of the season, as Brian Smith, the Exiles’ rugby director, readily acknowledged. “I first worked with Shane when he was a kid in the academy, but he’s a man’s man now,” Smith said.
“He masterminded our comeback despite being cleaned up good and proper. That first shot of Pisi’s left him throwing up on the park. He showed a lot of guts out there.” In more ways than one, he might have added.
Geraghty even found the energy to go the length after Northampton coughed up the ball in the visitors’ 22, pursued to the bitter end by the Lions wing George North, no less. It was no more than he deserved. On several occasions during the first half, he sliced up the title challengers with a combination of smart footwork, delicate passing and an understanding of space – how to create it, how to maximise it – that only the most gifted footballers possess.
It was a pleasure to watch, albeit a pleasure tinged with sadness. Why, in the name of all that is holy, did he win only half a dozen caps for his country?
Afterwards, he was asked whether he had felt hard done by early in the second half, when he peered up at the scoreboard and saw Northampton, for whom he played between 2009 and 2011, almost out of sight, with four tries and almost 30 points in the bank.
“Not really,” he replied. “If you make basics errors against a top-two side like the Saints, which we did, they’ll hurt you. I spent enough time here to know that much. I’m pleased we showed some character, though. We might even have won it had the long injury not broken our momentum.”
That injury was suffered by the young Northampton hooker Matt Williams, who suffered a broken leg shortly after entering the fray off the bench. His season is over – sad to relate, he will be extremely lucky if he sees the start of next season – and with Dylan Hartley, the club captain and resident England No 2, still suffering from shoulder problems, and his bright-spark understudy Mike Haywood struggling for fitness, the Midlanders have serious difficulties with their front-row roster. However, this bonus-point victory should just about see them right in their quest for a home semi-final.
Two tries from ricochets – the first awarded to the wing Jamie Elliott despite a questionable grounding of the ball; the second claimed by the scrum-half Kahn Fotuali’i down the short side – made a mockery of London Irish’s good intentions in attack and when Elliott scored a second late in the second quarter, capitalising on a fine pass out of contact by the England centre Luther Burrell, there seemed no reason to question the outcome of the match. The sense of predictability was reinforced when, a minute after the interval, Ma’afu made his mark (some would prefer the word “crater”) after more good work from the same source.
Yet the idea Northampton would go on to win by a distance proved deeply flawed. On 59 minutes, Burrell messed up in a big way, attempting the rugby equivalent of a back pass to the goalkeeper and serving up a try for Andrew Fenby. Sixty seconds or so later, Geraghty disappeared into the wide blue yonder for his seven-pointer; six minutes after that, the Canadian forward Jebb Sinclair registered the Exiles’ third score from a goal-line siege that had already cost the Northampton prop Alex Waller a yellow card.
Down to 14 men and only eight points ahead, the Saints’ knickers were in a rare old twist, and had Tom Homer’s long open-field pass to Marland Yarde not been ruled forward, that advantage would have been narrowed further. With an Amlin Challenge Cup semi-final against Harlequins and a difficult Premiership trip to Bath awaiting his side over the next 11 days, there could be no arguing with Northampton’s director of rugby, Jim Mallinder, when he said: “We’ll have to be better than that against the big teams.”