There is winning ugly, and there is winning in a style that might offend the Phantom of the Opera. Worcester, nine points adrift in relegation alley, travelled to the home of the one side currently on their radar in the belief that their heavyweight scrum might just huff and puff them to the second victory of a dire Premiership campaign. They did indeed win, by hook or by crook, but not because of the superiority of their set-piece. In fact, they may have to restructure their game radically if they are to build on this result and rise from the foot of the table.
New scrum engagement procedures introduced by the International Rugby Board were given a first airing yesterday afternoon. The testosterone-fuelled hits gave way to some touchy-feely business between the rival props before full contact was sanctioned by the referee, and as a result, size mattered far less than it had in the first half of the season. Before Christmas, a 20-stoner like the Tongan loose head Tevita Taumoepeau might have fancied his day's work against an opponent of Pat Barnard's modest proportions. Here, he found himself in all manner of strife.
Between them, Barnard and the crafty old Lions warhorse Tom Smith had the Worcester front row on toast, hence the unfortunate Taumoepeau's departure from the fray at the interval. Barnard was particularly impressive to the extent that he must now be judged a potential runner for representative honours after this year's World Cup - or, if injuries really bite into the England squad, before it.
All things considered, then, it was quite some achievement by Northampton to lose the game. Paul Grayson, their director of rugby, was in no doubt as to the consequences of failure in front of another full house at Franklin's Gardens - "We've put Worcester back into the competition when we should have played them out of it,'' he said - and was equally convinced that his side had been denied full value for their expertise at close quarters. "I don't understand why the law changes have been made, because they make the scrum a more dangerous place rather than a less dangerous one.''
He continued: "I'm not blaming the referee, but I don't think anyone really knew what was going on out there.''
One thing Grayson failed to foresee, and could not criticise, was the defensive performance of the Worcester centre Dale Rasmussen, whose tackling bordered on the heroic. Together with Gary Trueman, who cut some decent angles with ball in hand as well as manning the barricades to great effect, Rasmussen was the pick of a Worcester side throughout a hugely testing encounter.
There was only one try in it, a ferocious finish near the left corner by the Worcester No 8 Drew Hickey three minutes shy of the hour. Rasmussen had a fair bit to do with it, naturally, and although the final pass looked a shade forward as Hickey ran flat and hard with the line in his sights, it was no more than the visitors deserved after a strong spell of direct, confrontational possession rugby. Shane Drahm, another important contributor in a back division full of honest endeavour, converted from a wide angle to open up a 10-6 lead.
However, it was clear that Northampton had the winning of the game in their hands. They possessed all the running talent on view, although Carlos Spencer looked a yard short of a gallop in open field, and with Steve Thompson showing at least some of the touches that made him the best footballing hooker in the world four years ago, a response to Hickey's try always seemed on the cards.
Yet they could not find a way to score. Daniel Browne knocked on when it would have been simpler to claim a pushover try; Pat Sanderson made the steal of the game as the Northampton forwards were mauling their way over the whitewash; Craig Gillies plundered a home throw five metres from his own line to sabotage another attack. It was that sort of day for the Midlanders, which made a change from it being that sort of day for Worcester.
Northampton: Penalties Spencer 3. Worcester: Try Hickey; Conversion Drahm; Penalty Drahm.
Northampton: P Diggin; S Lamont, S Mallon, R Kydd, B Cohen; C Spencer, M Robinson (J Howard, 54); T Smith, S Thompson (capt), P Barnard (C Budgen, 62), D Gerard, C Short (M Lord, 82), P Tupai, D Fox, D Browne.
Worcester: S Drahm; A Havili, D Rasmussen, G Trueman, M Garvey (T Delport, 35); J Brown, R Powell (M Powell, h-t); T Taumoepeau (D Morris, h-t), A Lutui (C Fortey, 66), C Horsman, C Gillies, T Collier (P Murphy, 54), G Quinnell (K Horstmann, h-t), P Sanderson (capt), D Hickey.
Referee: R Debney (Leicestershire).Reuse content