It will be nowhere near this simple come Six Nations time in Cardiff two weeks on Friday – as generations of Englishmen know to their bitter cost, the s-word is not a part of the rugby vocabulary when the Red Rose tangles with the Red Dragon on international business west of the River Severn – and without the hit-man lock Courtney Lawes rocking the Millennium Stadium to its foundations, it could be very difficult indeed for the visitors. Northampton may have left Wales with their European Champions Cup campaign wholly intact, but the bigger picture quickly took on a darker hue.
Leicester’s six-try victory over the Llanelli-based Scarlets two days ago, followed by this more narrowly focused but no less comprehensive win in neighbouring Swansea by the other big beasts from the East Midlands, must surely have set Warren Gatland thinking as he starts planning and plotting for the arrival of the ancient enemy. The Wales coach saw a couple of senior players – the lock Alun Wyn Jones, the outside-half Dan Biggar – fight the good fight yesterday, just as Rhys Priestland and Scott Williams had performed to their level at Welford Road, but their efforts were equally fruitless.
But it is an ill wind, and all that: within minutes of the final whistle, Gatland found himself being encouraged by the news that when England come knocking in 18 days’ time, Lawes will not be among their number. Jim Mallinder, the Northampton rugby director, revealed that his most destructive physical force would be undergoing surgery on a troublesome ankle joint today and would miss the “first few weeks” of the Six Nations tournament.
“It’s bad news for Courtney, bad news for us – we won’t have him for this weekend’s game with Racing Metro, which is so important to us – and bad news for England, because he’s a quality international performer,” Mallinder said. “He chipped a bone in his ankle during our Premiership game with Leicester before Christmas and he hasn’t recovered. He needs the operation to clear things out.”
As news bulletins went, this was a grisly one for Stuart Lancaster, the England head coach. With Joe Launchbury, the young but increasingly influential Wasps lock, recovering from neck surgery and unlikely to return to serious rugby much before the end of April, the engine-room partnership that performed so magnificently in last year’s Six Nations is completely broken.
Dave Attwood of Bath – no mean stand-in – is now assured of starting in Cardiff; the man alongside him will be either the Lions Test lock Geoff Parling, whose recent concussion problems are happily behind him judging by his excellent recent displays for Leicester, or George Kruis, the inexperienced newcomer from Saracens whose rapid progress has been slowed just a little by the suspension he picked up for dangerous tackling a week ago.
Graham Kitchener, another Leicester man, continues to play the house down, while Christian Day of Northampton has been a hero of the unsung variety for longer than he might care to remember.
Saints benefited from any good fortune that was going. All the lucky bounces went their way: Northampton’s opening try, touched down by that highly industrious and hugely effective street-fighter of a flanker Calum Clark, was the direct result of the pressure Tom Wood exerted on the Ospreys scrum-half Rhys Webb at an attacking scrum; their next, finished by George North, came from Justin Tipuric’s uncharacteristic spilling of possession in Luther Burrell’s tackle; Stephen Myler’s second penalty, the only score of an underwhelming second half, stemmed from a longer-range effort that cannoned off a post and caught the home players offside.
Then there was the George Pisi tackle eight minutes shy of the interval: or rather, THE George Pisi tackle, which left Biggar in a heap on the floor and sent the locals into paroxysms of fury. If the Samoan centre, a genial soul with an unnerving penchant for the damaging hit, appeared to tip the outside-half well beyond the horizontal, he most certainly did not appear to guide him gently back to earth, as the law requires. Pisi was shown a yellow card, which was not the colour most of the paying public felt appropriate.
“You can’t run up to the referee asking for him to show red,” Jones said. “That’s not in the spirit of the game.” And he was absolutely right, although instances of players poking their noses into refereeing deliberations are undoubtedly on the increase. As far as the man who captained the Lions to victory over the Wallabies in Sydney in 2013 was concerned, his side’s problems went well beyond one dodgy midfield assault. He bemoaned his side’s generosity in the first half, and was every bit as exasperated by their inability to maximise glaring overlaps towards the end.
For Northampton, who will win their pool and guarantee themselves a home quarter-final if they see off their Parisian rivals at Franklin’s Gardens this weekend, there was a high level of collective satisfaction. For Clark, who stripped Ospreys bare on the floor, there was personal satisafaction too. The England back-row contest is molten hot right now, but on this evidence, the Yorkshireman will make the cut.
Scorers: Ospreys – Penalties: Biggar 3. Northampton – Tries: Clark, North. Conversions: Myler 2. Penalties: Myler 2.
Ospreys: D Evans; A Natoga (H Dirksen 63), A Beck, J Matavesi, E Walker; D Biggar, R Webb; M Thomas (G Thomas 50), S Baldwin (S Parry 63), A Jarvis (D Arhip 50), R Bernardo (S Lewis 63), A W Jones (capt), J King, J Tipuric, T Ardron (M Allen 76).
Northampton: B Foden (J Wilson 11); K Pisi, G Pisi, L Burrell, G North; S Myler, L Dickson; A Waller (A Corbisiero 53), D Hartley (capt, M Haywood 70), G Denman (E Waller 72), S Dickinson, C Day, T Wood, C Clark, S Manoa (P Dowson 70).
Referee: J Garces (France).Reuse content