Northampton vs Gloucester: George North hits the ground running to give champion Saints a flying start

Northampton 53 Gloucester 6

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The Independent Online

Northampton won their first Premiership title last May and you might say they left it a little late, the decisive score coming in the last second of the last period of extra-time at Twickenham. Tonight, the champions opted for a change of tack by starting early. Gloucester, stacked with new big-name signings and confident of putting last season’s miseries behind them, will not want to remember the hiding they suffered, but there is no likelihood of them ever being allowed to forget it.

The Saints scored eight tries – enough for two whole bonus points, if only the system allowed it – and three of them went to the Lions wing George North, who looked a million dollars after a few weeks’ rest. Not that he was the only star of the show. In Samu Manoa, an American No 8 from the wrong side of the tracks, they had a force of nature intent on doing everything right: one of his all-over body tackles on the England centre Billy Twelvetrees had the whole ground shaking. And in Stephen Myler they had an outside-half who, in that quiet way of his, performed quite beautifully.

Gloucester may well have considered it a bum deal from the outset, travelling to a venue as forbidding as Franklin’s Gardens at the earliest possible stage of a season they will spend reinventing themselves under new management, yet their worst fears were not immediately realised. Yes, they were penalised at the first scrum – ghastly shades of last term – and yes, they were guilty of overcooking the odd move in midfield. But they were on level terms at the end of the opening quarter, James Hook cancelling out Myler’s early penalty in like fashion.

Then, the Law of Sod kicked in with a vengeance. Hook, fully committed on his senior debut for the club, showed his defensive skills by bringing the powerful Luther Burrell to earth but his good work was rendered null and void when the referee Wayne Barnes, heartily booed at the start by Northampton supporters who hold him wholly responsible for their heavy Premiership final defeat by Leicester in 2013, decided that Charlie Sharples had followed up the clearance from an offside position. The Saints went for the attacking line-out option and promptly worked North in at the corner down the short side.

If that hurt the West Countrymen, there was more pain to come. Hook’s ambitious pass in open field ricocheted into the arms of his unsuspecting fellow newcomer John Afoa, who was far more obviously offside than Sharples had been. The champions opted for the line-out once again and this time, their driving forwards gave Myler the time and space to find George Pisi with a chip of great precision and present the Samoan centre with a touchdown at the sticks.

Greig Laidlaw, another Gloucester debutant at scrum-half, responded with a 40-metre penalty, but any thoughts the visitors might have had of reining in their hosts evaporated when the Northampton backs stacked the right-hand side of the field and gave North a second shot at a try, which he accepted by twisting and turning his way free of the remnants of a broken defence.

For Gloucester, the game was up with 50 per cent of it remaining. It was a long 50 per cent, to say the least. Burrell took his side past the 30-point mark early in the half after a clean break from the full-back James Wilson before Myler’s floated scoring pass to North, every bit as accurate as his earlier kick to Pisi, brought the sell-out crowd to its feet. Kahn Fotuali’i, Jon Fisher and Burrell also crossed as the tide swept in, as would Uncle Tom Cobleigh have done had he been on the field. If the Cherry and Whites ever visit this place again, it will be many years too soon.

Scorers: Northampton – Tries: North 3, Burrell 2, G Pisi, Fotuali’i, Fisher. Conversions: Myler 4, Hooley. Penalty: Myler. Gloucester – Penalties: Hook, Laidlaw.

Northampton: J Wilson; K Pisi, G Pisi (B Foden 57), L Burrell, G North; S Myler (W Hooley 66), L Dickson (K Fotuali’i 55); A Corbisiero (A Waller 51), D Hartley (capt, R McMillan 66), S Ma’afu (G Denman 51), C Lawes (J Craig 57), C Day, C Clark, T Wood, S Manoa (J Fisher 51).

Gloucester : R Cook (S McColl 61); C Sharples, H Trinder, W Twelvetrees (capt, M Atkinson 67), J May; J Hook, G Laidlaw (D Robson 52); D Murphy (Y Thomas 67), R Hibbard (D Dawidiuk 52), J Afoa (S Puafisi 64), T Savage, J Hudson (T Palmer 52), S Kalamafoni, J Rowan (R Moriarty 57), B Morgan.

Referee: W Barnes (London).

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