Drahm steals win as Toulouse waste creative brilliance

Northampton 23 - Toulouse 21
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The Independent Online

Many games of rugby at this exalted level are decided by accurate kicking; occasionally, a match is defined by it. And so it came to pass at Franklin's Gardens that Guy Noves captured the very essence of another mighty Anglo-French encounter with a single swing of the boot. Noves was not on the pitch at the time - wholly appropriate, given that he is a coach rather than a player - and did not connect with the ball. Instead, he hoofed a bucket of ice high into the stratosphere, leaving the touchline looking like the southern tip of the Arctic circle and some poor bloke in the crowd resembling Captain Oates.

Noves was not the least bit happy with life, and it was easy to see his point. Toulouse, champions in 2003 and runners-up last season, were massively superior at the scrummage and even more dominant at the line-out, where they refused Northampton the merest whiff of clean possession. The try they scored at the end of the first half was too wonderful for words - Benoit Baby, Gareth Thomas and the outstanding Jean Bouilhou were the principal creators, Florian Fritz the finisher - and the skills shown by some of their more extravagant talents, not least Nicolas Jeanjean on the wing, were jaw-dropping.

Yet they finished second, just as they came up short against Wasps last May in the final of this very competition, despite playing the rugby of the gods in every area of the pitch except the five metres nearest their opponents' line. If Noves was guilty of descending into head-fit territory on Saturday, he would have needed the patience of a saint to have done otherwise. It is bad enough watching a team lose because they are hopeless. Toulouse lose matches on account of their own brilliance.

Should they ever decide to keep things nice and simple, rather than over-complicating everything twice over in their pursuit of high art, they will be unbeatable.

"Toulouse are a massive danger in any game they play, because they are capable of scoring tries like that one just before half-time," commented Paul Grayson, the Northampton player-coach, whose hugely effective display of tactical governance kept the struggling Midlanders in business when they looked in danger of losing their shirts. "It was our own fault, in the sense that we should have kicked the ball off the pitch rather than straight to them. Even so, you don't really expect to be sliced up like that, in the space of a few seconds."

Grayson, who hit the spot with five penalties from a range of angles and distances before giving way to Shane Drahm in time for the Australian to drop a match-winning goal with nine minutes left on the clock, said his side were inspired by the prospect of "copping a good hiding".

And inspired they were, in an all-hands-to-the-pump kind of way. Nine consecutive Premiership defeats may have suggested a lack of self-respect as well as self-belief, but the likes of Matt Lord and Andrew Blowers gave the lie to that notion. Blowers was nothing short of heroic, having looked a shadow of his former self throughout the first half of the domestic campaign.

"You couldn't describe our performance as polished," admitted the new head coach, Budge Pountney, "but digging out a victory in the way we did was probably more valuable to us than going out there and blasting someone away. It was primarily about spirit, about people being there for each other. We'll need plenty of that over the next few months."

Northampton: Try Robinson; Penalties Grayson 5; Drop goal Drahm. Toulouse: Tries Fritz, Jauzion; Conversion Michalak; Penalties Michalak 3.

Northampton: J Clarke; J Rudd, B Cohen, M Stcherbina, W Human; P Grayson (S Drahm, 71), M Robinson (J Howard, 78); C Budgen (Morris, 70), S Thompson (capt), R Morris (B Sturgess, 53), M Lord, D Browne (E O'Donohue, 67-72), A Blowers, M Soden, C Krige (G Seely, 69).

Toulouse: B Baby (V Clerc, 45); N Jeanjean, Y Jauzion, F Fritz (C Heymans, 64), G Thomas; J-F Dubois, F Michalak; P Collazo, Y Bru (capt, W Servat, 51), O Hasan, G Lamboley, D Gerard (F Pelous, 42), J Bouilhou, C Labit (V Lacombe, 36-41, F Maka 67), I Maka (F Maka, 32-34, Lacombe 76).

Referee: A Lewis (Ireland).