When Premiership clubs routinely declare themselves proud of the young players they bring through, it might be asked why the fuss, considering there are thousands around the country to choose from, and what would they do for a team if they failed to bother?
Nevertheless, the excitement in Northampton was palpable and justifiable at the performances yesterday of the try-scoring centre Tom Stephenson and the brothers brimful of talent, Ethan and Alex Waller in the front row.
The highly promising 20-year-old fly-half, Will Hooley, was sent on to fill a gap late in the match, and he scored too as Saints moved above Saracens to the top of the table.
“Sometimes you don’t have a choice but to field the younger players,” said Jim Mallinder, Northampton’s director of rugby, with a nod to half a dozen missing star turns including Dylan Hartley, Courtney Lawes, Tom Wood and George North who were busy preparing for England v Wales next Sunday.
“We don’t have a massive squad but we’re in a fortunate position to have an experienced core of players and for some of the younger lads to play alongside them is the right thing to do.” Alex is the elder Waller, just turned 24, but Ethan, 21, started ahead of him here as the pair of loosehead props continued their family game of one-upmanship in the Northampton No 1 jersey while Alex Corbisiero of England and the Lions nurses a knee injury.
The Wallers are sponsored by a dental firm but their dominance of the Gloucester scrum was more like shelling peas than pulling teeth, particularly in the 55th minute when a rejigged home front row comprising Hartley’s stand-in as the starting hooker, Mike Haywood, and the substitute props Alex Waller and Tom Mercey hit Gloucester on the ‘p’ of Dan Robson’s put-in and back-pedalled them five metres.
It led eventually, after a series of penalties kicked for line-outs, to a try for Calum Clark, and the beginning of the end for Gloucester who had fortuitously kept the scoreline to 13-13 up to that point, largely thanks to an 80-metre interception run-in by Henry Trinder in the eighth minute, converted by Freddie Burns, that equalised a try in 72 seconds for Northampton by Ken Pisi converted by Steve Myler.
The clubs’ relatives positions may be summed up by the goal-kicking of Myler and Burns – the former up in the mid-80s in percentage success to Burns’s woeful place in the high 50s – but of course there is a lot more to Gloucester’s ninth place than that. Their first-choice forwards are way below Northampton’s standard, never mind the bench men or academy products.
Two penalties each by Burns, who would be replaced by his brother Billy later on, and Myler, added to each side’s tally but the parity that preceded Clark’s try was a wholly misleading representation of Northampton’s domination of territory and of the scrummage. Saints were only being undone by individual errors – James Wilson, for one, will want to forget his two kicks from hand out on the full, a knock-on fielding a Gloucester punt and an up-and-under of stunningly vertical geometry – but they gained some impetus when Ben Foden, the England full-back, reappeared after 14 weeks’ absence with a knee injury.
The 19-year-old Stephenson struck after 64 minutes, knifing past Billy Burns and brushing off Matt Kvesic’s tackle, for a first-phase try from a line-out off the top; it was the blond midfielder’s fourth try in five matches following his maiden score for Saints at Newcastle last week and two for England’s Under 20s against France and Scotland.
Myler converted, and did so again when Northampton earned the bonus point with Alex Waller’s exultant finish of a driving maul set up by Christan Day’s catch at the front of a line-out with seven minutes remaining.
And there was time still for Hooley to gather what looked suspiciously like a forward pass and canter into the left-hand corner. The conversion from Myler that hit a post was the fly-half’s only miss and he is now 17 points short of 1000 in his Premiership career while his club’s challenge for a trio of trophies motors on towards Saturday’s LV Cup semi-final here against Saracens.
Northampton Saints: J Wilson (B Foden, 51); K Pisi, G Pisi (W Hooley, 66), T Stephenson, J Elliott; S Myler, K Fotuali’i (L Dickson, 51); E Waller (A Waller, 51), M Haywood (R McMillan, 66), S Ma’afu (T Mercey, 53), S Dickinson (B Nutley, 67), C Day, C Clark, P Dowson (capt), GJ van Velze (S Manoa, 33).
Gloucester: R Cook; C Sharples, H Trinder, M Tindall (capt), M Thomas (S Monahan, 68); F Burns (B Burns, 62), D Robson (T Knoyle, 67); Y Thomas (D Murphy, 55), H Edmonds (D George, 53), R Harden (S Puafisi, 52), E Stooke (W James, 52), J Hudson, M Cox, M Kvesic, G Evans (R Moriarty, 67) Referee: T Wigglesworth (Yorkshire).