European Challenge Cup: The Spencer show - from magical to maddening

Northampton 45 Bristol 8
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The Independent Online

A recent surge of good form may have dispelled some of the gloom that surrounded Saints in the early part of the season, but when so many hopes rest on a player as exasperating as Carlos Spencer it is still best to have as many chances a possible.

Who knows what the former All Black No 10 is going to do? Certainly not his team half the time, and many of his over-the-shoulder passes and flips behind smack of showboating. But when he is fully engaged he is joyful and captivating. For periods yesterday Spencer was exactly that, analysing the defence and switching play to expose weakness with instant judgements and wonderful long passes that were fast and accurate.

In the ninth minute Jake Raulini box-kicked out of the Bristol 22, straight to Spencer near the right touchline. The ball was quickly moved to Bruce Reihana in midfield and two defenders were trying to cover three attackers. The beneficiary, after some neat passing between Reihana and Ben Cohen, was the Kiwi flanker Sam Harding, adding to his second-minute score.

It was dominant and entertaining, if a little soulless, but one-sided contests usually are. Thankfully Spencer provided illumination once more in the 25th minute with a gather and sprint from about the halfway line. Admittedly the Bristol defence was stretched and a yawning gap was before the stand-off but he eluded two desperate covering defenders as if they were tailors' dummies.

At least Bristol fought back at the start of the second half, although without adding to their only penalty, and as they tired the Saints ran riot with four tries in 10 minutes, starting with Mark Robinson in the 65th minute. There were two for Cohen as well and one for Johnny Howard, who gathered a long cross-field kick from Spencer.

It was entertaining in the way some people find shooting defenceless animals entertaining, although Bristol salvaged a small sliver of dignity with a score from Mariano Sambucetti. They should still qualify as a best runner-up, although a tough trip to Gloucester or Newcastle would be their reward.

Northampton: B Reihana (co-capt); S Lamont (J Howard, 41), J Clarke, L Myring (J Rudd, 23), B Cohen; C Spencer, M Robinson; T Smith, S Thompson (co-capt; D Hartley, 49), C Budgen (B Sturgess, 69), Damien Browne, M Lord (D Gérard, 61), B Lewitt (D Fox, 66), Daniel Browne (M Soden, 71), S Harding.

Bristol: V Going; L Robinson (D Gray, 63), M Denney, M Contepomi, S Marsden (R Higgitt, 72); T Hayes, J Rauluini; M Irish (A Clarke, 63), S Nelson (N Clarke, 63), W Thompson (M Rospide, 66), M Sambucetti, O Hodge, R Martin-Redman, G Lewis, C Short (capt).

Referee: E Darriere (France).