Sometimes, it is easy for a man to remember why he hated mathematics at school. Deep in the final quarter of this grisly contest in Swansea, the travelling hordes from Northampton were up against it: their hosts were back in the game after a close-range try from the scrum-half Rhys Webb, a certain “B John” had suddenly appeared in the Welsh back line as a substitute and thoughts of progress in the Heineken Cup were disappearing into the ether.
To their credit, the Midlanders redoubled their efforts and surged to victory – only to finish on the wrong side of the tournament’s notoriously mind-boggling arithmetic.
Even though the “B John” turned out to be a young utility back by the name of Ben rather than a sudden reincarnation of Barry, this was quite a win for Jim Mallinder’s men. Ospreys fielded some heavy- duty Lions forwards in Richard Hibbard, Ian Evans, Justin Tipuric and the outstanding Alun Wyn Jones, and when Adam Jones materialised to shore up a disintegrating home scrum after the break, they were highly competitive at close quarters. They also had Dan Biggar at outside-half, and the Wales playmaker is a serious proposition.
So for Northampton to find their way over the finishing line by scoring a dozen points at the last knockings and then discover that Leinster, recent three-time European champions, had just about ended their interest in this tournament by winning in Castres… well, it was a tough one to take. Especially as the Irish advantage going into this weekend’s final round of pool matches is rooted in the numerical outcome – match points, bonus points, the whole calculator-driven caboodle – of those compelling back-to-back matches between the two sides before Christmas.
In short, Northampton need to smash Castres clean out of Franklin’s Gardens on Friday night while praying to whatever God is left to them that Ospreys do a proper job on Leinster in Dublin at precisely the same time. The chances are slim, as the Midlanders themselves confessed. By far the likeliest outcome is that Brian O’Driscoll and company will sail into the quarter-finals of the elite competition, leaving the Saints to slum it in the knock-out stage of second-tier Amlin Challenge Cup. Oh well.
If they do indeed come up short – and it is difficult to see how Ospreys, ravaged as they are by the Byzantine politics of the Welsh game and struggling to find the best of themselves as a consequence, can possibly deny Leinster so much as a losing bonus point at the Royal Dublin Showground – the Midlanders can at least look at George North and see a pot of money (a mega-salary for starters, plus a £60,000 fine for allowing him to play international rugby for Wales on the wrong day) exceptionally well spent. North, who performed so thrillingly for the Lions in Australia last summer, was every bit as watchable here. Crikey, what a talent.
A rough-house first half distinguished, if that is the word, by a running battle between Alun Wyn Jones and Courtney Lawes had ended tryless, with Stephen Myler’s four penalties leaving Biggar’s single success from the tee in the shade. But when the Samoan scrum-half Kahn Fotuali’i, playing against his old club, pinched some valuable possession for Northampton following Tipuric’s threatening tap-and-go raid deep into visiting territory, North suddenly found himself with ball in hand tight to the left touchline. He had a good 70 metres to cover, but after slipping two tackles in no space at all, he easily outpaced Richard Fussell on his way to a memorable five-pointer.
“It was average,” said Mallinder, the Midlanders’ rugby director, breaking into one of his ironic smiles. “In fairness to George, he’s giving us exactly what we want from all our players by performing extremely well at club level and going on to do the same internationally.
“People talked of him having a slow start when he came to us from Scarlets, but even in those early matches he was doing brilliant things.” Those brilliant things were generally for the common weal. Yesterday’s brilliant thing was for him, as well as everyone else.
Webb’s riposte on 63 minutes dragged the Ospreys to within a score and for a few moments, it seemed Northampton would be over-run. But they have toughened up mentally as well as physically and with Luther Burrell finally hitting his level on the off-loading front, they spared themselves the worst discomfort as the clock reached the 70-minute mark. Twice, Burrell flicked passes out of contact, the second of them to his fellow centre George Pisi, who completed the crucial touchdown.
There was still time for another try apiece – Alun Wyn Jones for the home side, Glenn Dickson for the visitors – but it was Burrell who ended the game with the broadest smile. Those pressure deliveries of his will do him no harm at all when it comes to England selection for the opening Six Nations game in France less than two weeks from now: while Billy Twelvetrees of Gloucester patently has the skill-set to launch the red rose attacking game from inside centre, but some very influential voices are backing his rival... at ever increasing volume.
Scorers: Ospreys – Tries: Webb, A W Jones. Conversions: Biggar 2. Penalty: Biggar. Northampton – Tries: North, Pisi, G Dickson. Conversion: G Dickson. Penalties: Myler 4.
Ospreys: R Fussell; J Hassler, T Isaacs (B John 67), J Spratt, A Natoga; D Biggar, R Webb; R Bevington, R Hibbard (S Baldwin 55), A Jarvis (A Jones 46), A W Jones (capt), I Evans (J King 63), S Lewis (D Jones 33-42, M Allen 51), J Tipuric, J Bearman.
Northampton: T Collins (F Autagavaia h–t); J Elliot, G Pisi, L Burrell, G North; S Myler (G Dickson 72), K Fotuali’i (L Dickson 55); A Waller (E Waller 63), D Hartley (capt, M Haywood 72), S Ma’afu (T Mercey 51), C Lawes, C Day, C Clark (P Dowson 60), T Wood (S Dickinson 71), S Manoa.
Referee: P Gauzere (France).