Webster's late try boosts Northampton

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The Independent Online

It has been another rough European campaign for England's elite professional clubs – Bath, London Irish and Saracens are already toast as far as the knockout stages are concerned, while Leicester are feeling the heat from both Perpignan and Scarlets – but yesterday's peculiar proceedings at Murrayfield allowed the Premiership brigade to salvage something from the fourth round of matches. Edinburgh's unexpected 24-22 victory over Castres left Northampton on the brink of quarter-final qualification, and by purest coincidence, the Midlanders had one of their own to thank.

Simon Webster, the former Northampton wing who has just returned to big-time rugby after a long injury lay-off, scored a try four minutes from time and wholly against the run of play to stop the Frenchmen in their tracks. If his old club show sufficient ingratitude to beat Edinburgh with a bonus point next month, they will end the debate in Pool One and put themselves in prime position for a home tie in the last eight.

Webster, who made five Heineken Cup appearances for the Saints before heading north to maximise his international opportunities with Scotland, came off the bench to capitalise on a Castres defensive error just when the visitors appeared to have wrapped up victory with a third try. It was a welcome slice of good fortune for a player who has spent the best part of two years struggling with Achilles tendon problems.

Edinburgh matched Castres on the try-scoring front, crossing twice in the first half through Tim Visser and Lee Jones. Not that anyone witnessed these occurrences, apart from employees of the two clubs and a handful of media types. The contest, hastily rearranged after Sunday's postponement, was played behind closed doors, although as the Scots barely attract a crowd in normal temperatures, it was difficult to tell.

With Wasps likely to qualify in some comfort from the softest of the six pools – they may have the reigning champions Toulouse in their group, but two teams will almost certainly make it through – the fact that Northampton's job has suddenly grown much easier will come as a considerable relief to the Premier Rugby hierarchy, who saw only one of their clubs qualify for the quarter-finals last season. However, the trend of English decline in Europe remains in evidence. Two-thirds of the way through the round-robin programme, the Premiership's win-rate is a mere 50 per cent, compared with the 66 per cent by the Irish provinces and the 63 per cent by the French contingent, with Toulouse's home game against Glasgow to come today.

Newcastle, preparing feverishly for their Premiership scrap with Leeds on Boxing Day, gave themselves a fillip yesterday by persuading midfielder Jeremy Manning to sign a two-year contract extension. Manning joined from Munster during the summer and kicked the winning points in last weekend's Amlin Challenge Cup victory over Exeter.