Northampton 35 Bedford 9: Ashton in different league to brave Bedford

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The Independent Online

Halfway through what looks like being a single season outside the Premiership, Northampton completed a derby double which was self-evidently a triumph for the haves over the have-nots. The searing pace and finishing prowess of the Saints wing Chris Ashton was equally plain, and though Bedford are a handful of places below their old rivals in the National Division One table they might as well be playing on a different planet.

Ashton, a 20-year-old England rugby league cap signed from Wigan, raced to his 19th and 20th tries of the season. He is averaging more than one a match, while Saints have 18 wins out of 18, and looks worth fast-tracking through the England set-up, perhaps to the Saxons, a team coached by Jim Mallinder until he came to Franklin's Gardens last summer. "Chris has been a remarkable success," said Mallinder, who with his assistants, Dorian West and Paul Grayson, is presiding over a welcome period of stability. "He has a great ability to score tries and a good rugby brain too."

Northampton trumpeted proudly a record attendance for National Division One which outstripped their own best, set in the previous home match. Their chairman, Keith Barwell, accepted "full responsibility" for relegation from the Premiership, and his message to the supporters in the programme was: "I promise you your day will come". With promotion, surely, in April. Mallinder said recruitment was well under way.

Saints need not trouble themselves with the identity crisis in this second tier of the rugby pyramid, where part-time clubs such as Bedford rub up against a professional half-dozen. There has been no title sponsor since the division stopped being referred to as Premiership Two in 2000, but a possible cut from 16 clubs to 12 next season or the one after could lead the division back under the Premiership umbrella. There will be much jockeying for position, and London Welsh are thought to be beefing up their finances to share a new stadium in Kew with Brentford FC.

For this 210th derby since 1887 Bedford had five former Saints in their XV, while Northampton's line-up was much the same as the one which went down. Carlos Spencer is now deployed at full-back and the loss of Ben Cohen appears well balanced by Ashton's arrival. A 50-metre run by Ashton in the 25th minute faltered when he was caught in two minds and gave a poor pass to Bruce Reihana. At that stage the score was 6-6 two penalties apiece from Bedford's Canadian wing James Pritchard and Northampton's Barry Everitt.

Bedford kicked to the corners and had success with their driving maul. The home side kicked hardly at all and had the Bedford scrummage under pressure. It took a fumble to instigate Northampton's first try, Jon Clarke hacking a loose ball into the Bedford half, gathering and finding the lock Matt Lord in support. Ashton did the rest.

Everitt had limped off before the try so Stephen Myler converted and added a penalty two minutes into the second half. Pritchard's third penalty followed but the match was more or less settled just after the hour when a Northampton line-out drive was ended illegally by Dan Richmond, the Bedford hooker, who went to the sin-bin. The same offence recurred immediately afterwards for a penalty try, converted by Myler.

A rampage up the left wing by Clarke and Reihana was finished by Myler after 70 minutes. Ashton secured Saints' 13th try bonus of the season in added time, Myler converting.

Northampton: C Spencer; C Ashton, J Clarke, J Downey, B Reihana (capt); B Everitt (S Myler, 30), J Howard (M Robinson, 66); T Smith (S Tonga'uiha, 66), D Hartley (P Shields, 71), E Murray, M Lord (P Hoy, 68), A Rae, P Tupai, M Hopley, B Lewitt.

Bedford: B Burke; J Pritchard (G Sammons, 64-74), L Roberts (J Hinkins, 78), M Allen (capt), A Page; B Patston (R Owen, 74), K Dickson (W Chudley, 74); M Cecere (M Volland, 52), D Richmond, B Fortuna, J Phillips (A Brenton, 61), M Botha, N Strauss, R McKay, S Harding (C Mundy, 69).

Referee: G Garner (London).