Northampton 21 Leeds 18: Ross endures Leeds' latest theatre of horrors

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The Independent Online

Each season the relegation battle has provided great theatre to Premiership rugby and Saturday's meeting of two of the bottom three clubs lived up to the nail-biting, job-losing, club-imploding tradition. The tension on the field was obvious as the standard of play listed between the superb, especially in four of the tries, and butterfingered comedy.

"What do you expect?" asked the Saints coach, Paul Grayson. "These players are playing for their lives." His team's survival chances improved somewhat when Bruce Reihana kicked a final penalty inside the last two minutes and Leeds failed to attempt a drop-goal in the final seconds.

Worthy competitors though they are, Leeds were left at the bottom of the table with a worrying gap between them and Bath. By May this defeat could prove crucial. More irritating for them is the fact that they gifted Northampton the victory. Justin Marshall had been superb in the first half, driving his forwards at pace, firing quick passes out to runners attacking space and generally commanding his team's game.

It was an excellent display of scrum-half control, but then he lost it in the 44th minute.His punch landed on Ben Cohen's face and was spotted by the touch judge. Off went Marshall for 10 minutes and off went Cohen to have his face attended to. Thankfully for both Saints and Andy Robinson, the England coach, Cohen needed only a few stitches and he returned to the fray, eager for work and effective in cahoots with Jon Clarke and Reihana.

At the end, five points behind, Leeds squandered three superb opportunities before sticking to the basics of good ball retention near the line, an improvement that brought reward when Marshall's replacement Danny Care exploited a gap near the posts and dived over. The scores were level with an easy conversion to come, with two minutes left on the clock.

Exactly the kind of situation a struggling team needs to convert into a victory. But Gordon Ross hooked the kick and play switched ends to where Care was caught in possession and conceded the vital penalty.

A galling loss then, especially for the speedy Tom Biggs who scored two excellent tries for Leeds on the left wing. For the international coaches emotions were mixed. Robinson will enjoy the beautiful run by Cohen that brought Clarke's try while Scotland's Frank Hadden will despair, as Cohen made the break through the flimsiest of tackles by Ross. Add his lack of accuracy with the boot and it was not a good day for the fly-half.

One man was superb, although such is his job that a lot of his work lacked glamour. Steve Thompson charged and barged around the field, consistently made ground and tackled hard throughout. His line-out throwing? Whisper it gently, but it was good. Not perfect, maybe, but nothing ever is in relegation battles when jobs are at stake.

Northampton: Tries Lamont, Clarke; Conversion Reihana; Penalties Reihana 2, Spencer. Leeds: Tries Biggs 2, Care; Penalty Ross.

Northampton: B Reihana (co-capt); S Lamont, J Clarke, D Quinlan (R Kydd, 59), B Cohen; C Spencer, M Robinson (J Howard, 73); T Smith, S Thompson (co-capt), C Budgen (S Emms, 73), Damien Browne, P Lord (D Gérard, 73), P Tupai (S Harding, 48), B Lewitt, Daniel Browne.

Leeds: R de Marigny; A Snyman, R Vickerman (D Doherty, 48), C Bell, T Biggs; G Ross, J Marshall (D Care, 64); M Shelley (K Lensing, 58), R Rawlinson (G Bulloch, 46), R Gerber, S Hooper (capt), T Palmer, S Morgan (J Crane, 46), R Parks (D Hyde, 64), N Thomas (J Dunbar, 46).

Referee: T Spreadbury (Gloucestershire).