Northampton 10 Leicester 15: Kay offers hope amid thud and blunder

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The Independent Online

At this precise stage of proceedings, with an unwanted mission against the All Blacks - codenamed Operation Thanks a Bunch - less than three weeks distant, the England selectors do not need matches that generate more heat than light in respect of their most pressing selection issues. What did they get at Franklin's Gardens on Saturday? An East Midlands derby played at a molten temperature that left them in an all-encompassing darkness. Andy Robinson, the national coach, might have been forgiven for thinking he had died and landed in the bottom circle of hell.

In an ideal world, Steve Thompson would have been in the Northampton front row, with Julian White staring at him from the tight-head side of the Leicester unit. Sod's Law dictated long ago that Thompson would miss out, but White's absence with a neck injury was not foreseen. Neither was the decision of the visiting management to substitute Lewis Moody at an embarrassingly early stage of the contest, nor the unusually anonymous contribution of Martin Corry, who captained England last season. This is half the England pack we're talking about here. Oh dear.

England's problem positions are generally considered to be in the back division, most notably at centre and full-back. Yet the rumours flying around this wonderfully vibrant corner of the Guinness Premiership on Saturday were to do with the make-up of the forward unit. According to people with an ear close to terra firma, Corry has lost a good deal of ground to James Forrester of Gloucester in the race for the No 8 spot, and may find himself shunted to the blind-side flank - or even to the bench, which would mean him being stripped of his leadership duties. (There was also a notion that Perry Freshwater, the former Leicester prop now playing across the Channel with Perpignan, had edged ahead of Andrew Sheridan of Sale in the loose-head stakes).

If these shifts of preference are being seriously considered, the world champions are in greater selectorial strife than even the most pessimistic England supporter could have imagined. It is therefore re-assuring to report that two of Saturday's combatants, the Northampton wing Ben Cohen and the Leicester lock Ben Kay, confirmed their readiness for the forthcoming struggle with the silver-ferned fraternity by performing at something resembling Test pitch. Cohen played quite beautifully in difficult circumstances - his kicking game was spectacularly good, his defence even better - while Kay made such an unholy mess of the home line-out that for all their ferocity, the Saints could not generate the momentum necessary to eke out a victory.

Not that Northampton were without significant contributors of their own. Paul Tupai, a ruthless competitor who started the game in one of those moods, hurt Leicester in several ways, only one of them relating to the fine try he scored in the opening minutes of the second half. He, however, is a Samoan, and therefore of no obvious interest to the red-rose hierarchy. Dylan Hartley was also born on the other side of the world, but as he considers himself an Englishman, his performance here must have been of very great interest indeed.

Hartley, a moon-faced hooker who may or may not have started shaving, spent the entire match getting on the nerves of the Leicester pack, which suggested high levels of confidence and courage. Some of his work - his ball-carrying, his ground coverage - was entirely legitimate; other bits bordered on the criminal. It was the kind of pain-in-the-butt display that brought to mind the words of the former England hooker Mark Regan, who once said of a rival: "He has the kind of mug you'd never get tired of punching." He could go far, this Hartley.

Northampton have now lost four in succession - hardly the best preparation for their Heineken Cup trip to Biarritz, last season's runners-up, on Sunday. Yet there were mitigating circumstances. They took the field with a scrum-half on the right wing, a full-back at outside-centre and a novice at stand-off. There was no goal-kicker worth a light anywhere to be seen, and their line-out was of the chocolate teapot variety. It is fiendishly difficult to beat Leicester when the stars are in their correct alignment. When the heavenly bodies are all over the place, there is an even-money chance of catching a hiding.

Thanks largely to the ineptitude of the Leicester backs, who butchered try-scoring opportunities on an industrial scale, the Saints would probably have won had they kicked 50 per cent of their goals. Sadly for them, they kicked 0 per cent. Robbie Kydd missed the first couple, at which point the captain, David Quinlan, asked Luke Myring to have a go. He also missed twice. Meanwhile, Andy Goode was bisecting the uprights with some regularity, and to add insult to injury, he celebrated his last three-pointer from a horizontal position after losing his footing on contact.

"I would probably have told Robbie to keep going, because when Luke came on he was kicking cold," said the Northampton head coach, Paul Grayson, who popped a few between the sticks in his time. "At least they missed on the better side of the posts. I'd prefer a pull to a slice any day."

Is there really no alternative, apart from reinventing medical science by turning Bruce Reihana's long-term injury into a short-term one?

"We have a lad from rugby league who kicks very well, but he needs to learn the rules," Grayson replied. "He'll be ready in about a year." Happy days.

Northampton: Tries Robinson, Tupai. Leicester: Penalties Goode 5.

Northampton: R Kydd; J Howard (R Laird, 79), V Going (C Wyles, 78), D Quinlan (capt), B Cohen; L Myring, M Robinson (I Vass, 72); T Smith, D Hartley, P Barnard (C Budgen, 76), Damien Browne, C Short (D Gérard, 54), P Tupai (M Easter, 73), D Fox, Daniel Browne.

Leicester: S Vesty; G Murphy, O Smith, D Hipkiss (P Burke, 67), J Murphy (L Lloyd, 40); A Goode, S Bemand; M Ayzera, G Chuter, M Holford, L Cullen, B Kay, L Deacon, L Moody (S Jennings, 59), M Corry (capt).

Referee: C White (Gloucestershire).

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