Try-scoring is bad for your health. Mike Tindall, the World Cup-winning centre, wrecked his ankle ligaments while crossing the whitewash for Bath at Saracens just after Christmas; Richard Birkett, the Wasps lock, damaged his kidneys in the act of grounding the ball against London Irish nine days ago. As there was yet more carnage yesterday - Rob Hunter of Northampton was whisked away from the Madejski Stadium by ambulance after hurting his neck while claiming the first of his side's five-pointers - the message is clear. If you want to stay fit, let others run the risk of glory.
It is far safer to kick your way into the bright lights, as Paul Grayson did in guiding his side into the top three of the Premiership. There is more variety in Grayson's right sock than in an average night at the London Palladium - "To my mind, he has a greater range of tactical kicking options than any outside-half in the world," said his coach, Wayne Smith - and in the course of a second half that re-established Northampton as one of the Premiership's major players, he gave another master class in the art of putting boot to ball.
Northampton were a couple of points adrift at the interval, having lost both locks - John Phillips preceded Hunter by twanging a calf muscle in the opening few minutes - and leaked tries to Paul Sackey and Michael Horak, the two London Irish backs capable of running into open field without requiring treatment for agoraphobia. Grayson righted the wrong a minute into the second period with a superb wide-angled penalty from the right touchline, and then created an extraordinary try for Bruce Reihana with some inspired, not to say uniquely imaginative, punting.
The first kick was a dinky little slider over the Irish midfield that sent Mark Tucker rampaging into the soft underbelly of the Exiles' defence. Tucker veered away from his support, but when the ball was recycled, Grayson took ownership of the ball a second time, spotted Reihana in space on the right and found him with a perfectly weighted cross-chip. Reihana is quicker than most. The Irish cover streamed across, but it was barely a contest.
Three penalties later - Grayson really could not miss by this stage - Northampton were 29-15 ahead and sitting pretty. Mark Robinson's try in injury time, direct from a London Irish fumble and an opportunist pick and drive from Matt Lord, put them out of sight, and they were only a millimetre away from a bonus point when Nick Beal, their full-back, was held up over the line in the last move of the match.
Any similarity between this semi-slaughter and the opening half was entirely coincidental. Hurt by the extent of their defeat by Wasps the previous weekend, the Exiles' forwards started with a hiss and a roar, dominating possession and putting good pace on the ball at close quarters. Neal Hatley's elephantine charge caused such mayhem in the Northampton defence that Mark Mapletoft was able to put Sackey under the posts with a simple inside pass, and even though Hunter completed a long siege by burrowing over at considerable cost to his personal well-being, Horak's overlap score in the sixth minute of stoppage time restored the hosts' advantage.
That, however, was the last sighting of the Exiles, who disappeared as completely as Lord Lucan after the break. "I'm furious," Gary Gold, their coach, admitted. "That second half was unacceptable. Our two tries came as a result of our own efforts, theirs were the consequence of our mistakes." Gold must now prepare for a Parker Pen Challenge Cup tie with Narbonne, one of the stronger French sides, without a back row worthy of the name. Kieron Dawson, Declan Danaher, Chris Sheasby and Paul Gustard are all injured, as is Ryan Strudwick, the captain, who might have done a job at No 8. Thus far, 2004 has not been kind to London Irish.
London Irish: Tries Sackey, Horak. Conversion Mapletoft. Penalty Mapletoft. Northampton: Tries Hunter, Reihana, Robinson. Conversions Grayson 3. Penalties Grayson 5.
London Irish: M Horak; P Sackey, G Appleford, R Hoadley (N Greenstock, 65), J Bishop; M Mapletoft, D Edwards (K Barrett, 75); N Hatley, N Drotske (A Flavin, 77), P Durant (D Wheatley, 59), R Strudwick (capt, N Kennedy 40), R Casey, K Roche, M Haslett, P Murphy.
Northampton: N Beal; B Reihana, C Hyndman (M Tucker, 15, S Drahm, 40-41), J Leslie (capt), B Cohen; P Grayson, M Robinson; T Smith (T Taumepeau, 83), S Thompson (D Richmond, 83), T Taumepeau (C Budgen, 52), R Hunter (M Soden, 33, D Richmond, 52-64), J Phillips (M Lord, 7), M Connors, D Fox, A Blowers.
Referee: D Pearson (Northumberland)
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