Northampton 8 Bristol 14: Knee injury puts Ward-Smith out of Six Nations

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The Independent Online

There was something distinctly gladiatorial about this floodlit set-to at Franklin's Gardens, to the extent that Russell Crowe would have had serious second thoughts about participating in a skirt. Paul Tupai was in full warpaint - when is he ever anything else? - while Alfie To'oala, one of precious few 18st open-side flankers in world rugby, brought every ounce of his ballast to bear on proceedings. Brian Lima, "The Chiropractor", snapped poor David Quinlan in two and left him in a shallow grave; Ben Cohen was heartily and unedifyingly congratulated by his colleagues when he rendered Josh Taumalolo semi-conscious in a mid-air collision; and there was a fight at the end of each half for good measure.

Those who like their union rough and ready were given value for money, and then some. But there is always a price to pay when the mercury starts to rise, and on this occasion the man who paid it was Dan Ward-Smith. If there is a rugby god, he has a cruel streak. At kick-off time on Saturday evening, the uncapped No 8 was very much in the frame for a place in England's XXII for this weekend's Calcutta Cup match with Scotland at Twickenham. Fifteen minutes into the game, his Six Nations Championship ambition had shuffled off its mortal coil and gone to meet its maker.

Ward-Smith had been at the very epicentre of an exceptionally physical opening, won hands down by a rampant home pack, and when he took it upon himself to perform the most thankless of tasks by picking up the ball at the base of a retreating scrum, thereby sparing the likes of Shaun Perry a severe hiding, it was no more than his colleagues expected. What they did not expect was the hole that appeared where his right knee used to be. Swamped by Northampton tacklers in his own in-goal area, Ward-Smith's leg gave way on the slippery surface and ended up at an angle unknown to geometry. The diagnosis? A dislocation of the kneecap. It sounded horrible, and it was.

"We'll find out more after the scan, but it's either six weeks or six months," said Richard Hill, the Bristol coach. "It depends on the degree of complication. His Six Nations is gone, though, which is terrible for him." Had Hill considered resting him ahead of the meeting with the Scots? "Not really," he sighed. "Had he definitely been been making his debut, I wouldn't have picked him. As it was, we didn't know anything for sure. Anyway, he didn't flinch for a moment when I picked him for this game. He wanted to play."

Hill's opposite number, Paul Grayson, was equally sympathetic and, in his off-beat way, a little more optimistic. "He'll be heartbroken," Grayson said. "But you can't make a balls of things if you're not playing, can you? I imagine he's on the plane to the World Cup already, so provided he makes a full recovery in good time for the autumn, he'll get his chance." Ward-Smith may be thinking along those lines. There again, he may not.

Brian Ashton, the new head coach of England, may not have selected Ward-Smith in his starting combination for this weekend's game; the feeling in the squad was that he would be on the bench. But Ashton could have done without the setback. Martin Corry, the deposed national captain from Leicester, may possess experience, know-how and leadership skills, but Ward-Smith was the man with the pace, the offloading ability, the dynamism. England are the weaker for his absence, even though he has yet to pull on the shirt.

Bristol are anything but weak: not in body, nor in mind, nor in spirit. Particularly not in spirit. They took an almighty shellacking in the first half here and were forced to absorb any amount of pressure. Fortunately for them, their defence was impeccable - the surest sign that they are a side fully equipped in the heart and soul department. Perry, the scrum-half capped by England in the autumn, tackled his heart out. Neil Brew, the high-calibre centre from Otago, was even more ruthless in cutting down the North-ampton marauders.

If the West Countrymen have learnt anything about themselves this season, it is that a half-time deficit means diddly-squat - especially a deficit as slender as eight points. Northampton had to wait 33 minutes to cross the Bristol line, which was a good 30 minutes more than seemed reasonable, given their monopoly of possession.

By contrast, Bristol waited less than four minutes to make their response at the start of the second period, Lima intercepting an overly adventurous pass from Daniel Browne and sprinting 40-odd metres for the game-turning try. The Samoan then charged into Quinlan, the key figure in the Northampton defence, and comprehensively smithereened him. The visitors sensed then that victory would be theirs.

Sure enough, their pack took command, inspired to a considerable degree by the appearance of Sean Hohneck off the bench. The New Zealand Maori lock nailed line-out after line-out to give his colleagues repeated opportunities to squeeze the pips from the Northampton forwards, and after several beautifully organised driving mauls, To'oala found a way across the line for the winning try.

"This is a good time for a mid-season break, so we're off to Spain for a few days," said Hill. "We've been playing things down all season, but we've reached the point where we'll have to sit down and have a good discussion about our objectives for the rest of the campaign." In other words, they can no longer avoid talking about a top-four finish and a place in Europe. Good on them.

Northampton: Try Cohen; Penalty Spencer. Bristol Tries Lima, To'oala; Conversions Strange 2.

Northampton: P Diggin; S Lamont, R Kydd, D Quinlan (capt), B Cohen; C Spencer, M Robinson; S Tonga'uiha, D Hartley (D Richmond, 80); C Budgen, Damien Browne, C Short, P Tupai (S Emms, 54-62), D Fox (B Lewitt, 70), Daniel Browne.

Bristol: J Taumalolo; B Lima, N Brew, R Higgitt, D Lemi; J Strange, S Perry; A Clarke (D Hilton, 69), M Regan, D Crompton, R Winters, G Llewellyn (S Hohneck, 68), M Salter (capt), A To'oala, D Ward-Smith (R Pennycook, 16).

Referee: S Davey (Sussex).