Northampton make light of England absentees

Northampton Saints 34 Newcastle Falcons 13
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There are worse ways of shrugging off the loss to England of four influential players than by going top of the Aviva Premiership. If Northampton continue in this vein during the international window, there will be dancing in the streets.

They even managed to take a bonus point when James Downey (right) intercepted a desperate pass and scored at the posts. By then, though, they were out of sight and a hard-fought first hour will be remembered only by the Newcastle coaches,keen to take what they can.

Northampton must play two more Premiership fixtures without Chris Ashton, Ben Foden, Dylan Hartley and Courtney Lawes and London Irish will return to the top of the table if they beat Sale this afternoon. But Saints have a formidable pack and a back division in which Joe Ansbro, making his second start of the season here, showed why Scotland are interested in him.

"We have won eight games out of nine, it's not a bad position to be in," said Jim Mallinder, Northampton's director of rugby. "But there's no massive jumping around in the changing room. You want to put some distance between you and the opposition when you have the kind of set-piece advantage we had. We didn't do that but we remained patient."

Two of Northampton's tries came in the final quarter, despite the loss with ankle injuries of the hinge of the side, Lee Dickson and Roger Wilson. Newcastle were in contention until then but they are having to fight against debilitating injuries. They went backwards at the scrums at a rate of knots, Tim Swinson kept them in the line-out and they scrambled bravely in defence. But in attack they could offer little more than Jimmy Gopperth's little chips, one of which led to their try, scored by Jeremy Manning two minutes after he had replaced the full-back, Alex Tait.

Newcastle had reason to grumble after Dickson scored the only try of the first half. The scrum-half took Phil Dowson's flat pass and a swathe of decoy runners opened up a gap. "We all run decoy lines but if they get in the way of our defence, they shouldn't be allowed," said Alan Tait, Newcastle's head coach.

Nigel Owens, the Welsh referee, awarded the try and Northampton kept their noses in front. A forward pass denied Paul Diggin a score on the left and Christian Day crossed on the right, but left a leg in touch in Charlie Amesbury's tackle. Stephen Myler's kicking opened up a cushion and his tactical display showed up the paucity of Newcastle's game.

"We have to get little details right, then we have a chance of winning these games," Tait said. "We didn't clear our lines well enough, we missed touch and gave them the chance to counter, but that's where we are as a team."

Manning's try cut the deficit to three points but it prompted an immediate response: Greig Tonks initiated a counterattack from his own half, Myler's dart was just held and Tonks finished. Gopperth kicked a second penalty but Northampton's response was almost as swift. Their big ball-handling forwards made ground, Ryan Powell sniped and Ansbro came through the midfield to score. Downey's finale seemed almost inevitable.

Northampton Saints G Tonks; J Ansbro, J Clarke, J Downey, P Diggin (S Geraghty, 66); S Myler, L Dickson (R Powell, 45); S Tonga'uiha, B Sharman (A Long, 63), B Mujati (T Mercey, 69), C Clark (M Easter, 63), C Day, P Dowson (capt), R Wilson (M Sorenson, 24), T Wood.

Newcastle Falcons A Tait (J Manning, 51); L Fielden (T Catterick, 55), G Bobo, L Eves, C Amesbury; J Gopperth, M Young (C Pilgrim, 63); K Brookes (G Shiells, 32), R Vickers (capt; J Graham, 35), T Ryan (Brookes, 46), F Levi, T Swinson, M Wilson, A Hogg (B Wilson, 43-53), R Pennycook (E Williamson, 66).

Referee N Owens (Wales).