Cohen's double saves Saints' blushes

Northampton 32 Birmingham/S'hull 19
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The Independent Online

Two second-half tries by Ben Cohen helped Saints avoid an embarrassing defeat to a lower-league club. But the fact remains that the scoreline did little justice to the resilient Birmingham players.

With 23 minutes remaining they were deservedly in the lead, and Saints only saved the game and their blushes in the final five minutes. In the 76th minute, the ever-reliable Paul Grayson reached 2,000 points for the club from a penalty and then Matt Stewart bulldozed over for a try from short range.

Both were on as substitutes and made telling impacts on the game and, importantly, the shape of the Saints' side.

If Birmingham had been able to add such experience and skill from the bench, then a shock result would have been distinctly possible. Instead they lost their playmaker and kicker, the Argentine Luis Criscuolo in the 45th minute to injury.

His influence and accurate boot had allowed the underdogs to go in at half-time with the scores level. Indeed they had taken a six-point lead after the Saints had eschewed a couple of easy penalties in front of goal.

At the time it smacked of complacency but Wayne Smith, the Saints' new first- team coach, explained his tactics after the game. "We knew it would be a cup final for them but we wanted to play with the ball. We are trying to develop our game but today we were poor.''

So poor that when Nick Baxter ran in an interception try from his own 22 in the 53rd minute, Birmingham had a seven-point lead and fancied their chances of winning.

Ultimately, they did not possess the fitness, strength or depth, and as Smith shuffled his players, the pace quickened and Cohen started to threaten from the wing as Grayson kicked to him.

He had started in the centre, an experiment that was not in the least bit successful, but Smith believes that the England winger could adapt to the midfield. "It wasn't his best game but it was asking a lot of him,'' said Smith. "I still think that he has the qualities to be an outstanding centre.''

The new man in charge has new ideas and, after a quick trip home to New Zealand next week, he intends to start the necessary hard work. On this evidence there is plenty of it to do.

Northampton: J Shaw (T Kirk, 56); C Moir (J Howard, 70), B Cohen, M Tucker, N Beal; A Hepher (P Grayson, 52), M Dawson; K Todd, D Richmond, C Budgen (M Stewart, 56), A Newman, J Phillips, A Renwick (M Soden, 73), R Hunter, B Pountney (capt).

Birmingham: D Knight (G Cattle, 65); R Hyslop, S Read, J Minshull (A Small, 65), N Baxter; L Criscuolo (M Gallagher, 45), P Knight; N Lewis, (L Fortey, 50), A Hubbleday (G Houston, 73), W Bullock, J Hyde (capt), N Underhill (R McCrainor, 80), E Orgee, H Fakatau (M Brookes, 62), T Jordan.

Referee: S Leyshon (Bristol).