Northampton's appetite for treble tested to the limit

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The Independent Online

According to John Steele, whose undoubted talents as a multi-campaign strategist will be stretched this way and that over the next six weeks or so, the Northampton players will "get up and stay up" for the big games ahead, not because they are in any way superhuman, but because they have no choice in the matter.

"There's enough in the tank," he insisted after his side's single-score victory over a deeply committed London Irish outfit here. Then he paused for a second before adding: "There has to be enough."

Perhaps the events of Saturday evening gave Steele the first real inkling of how difficult it will be to go the whole hog in all three major club competitions - Premiership, European Cup and knock-out cup. Certainly, Northampton could have done without a physical test on this scale at this precise stage in their season. Early tries from Federico Mendez and Budge Pountney, who is playing out of his socks right now, gave them a measure of control that lasted until minute 80, but they signally failed to translate that control into absolute authority. The polyglot Irish gave them all the trouble they could handle, particularly at the set-piece, and with no let-up on the horizon, the bruises will be feeling very tender today.

Dick Best, the Exiles coach, appeared to pay the Midlanders a serious compliment when he said they were "probably capable of doing the treble", but the emphasis was on the word "probably". Northampton looked wholly convincing early on, but much less so during a fraught closing quarter. That tells a tale. They are beginning to feel the heat, and it is not overstating the case to suggest that Pat Lam, their wonderful No 8 and captain, is facing the greatest leadership challenge of his career.

Lam might have expected an easier passage into next month's final, especially when the Irish lost their most physical forwards, Mark Gabey and Jake Boer, before the interval. Gabey was off the field when Allan Bateman maximised an overlap opportunity to put Mendez in at the corner - "We were trying to get Nick Harvey on as a replacement, but the doctor thought Mark was fine, even though the guy was spilling his guts on the touchline," said Best, mournfully - and when Boer departed some 20 minutes later, the tie looked dead and buried.

The tie did not bargain for Ryan Strudwick, however. Another of Best's favourite South Africans, Strudwick made it his business to impose himself on every area of conflict: he went toe to toe with Tim Rodber in the line-out, locked horns with Lam at the restarts and mixed it with Mendez and Pountney in the loose. He also played his part in a big Irish scrummage near the Northampton line that gave Junior Tonu'u the space to create a blind-side try for Conor O'Shea with seven minutes left on the clock. Had the two sides still been playing at midnight, the 26-year-old from Pietermaritzburg would have been in the thick of it.

As it was, the tie ended after five edgy minutes of injury time, leaving the Irish to ponder what might be left of their season. "We're heading off to Gwent for a little missionary work," said Best, referring to this weekend's European Shield quarter-final with Ebbw Vale. "What better place to recharge the batteries?" The sarcasm in his voice was almost corrosive. Whoever bestowed the nickname "Sulphuric" on the former England coach knew exactly what he was talking about.

London Irish: Try: O'Shea; Penalties: Cunningham 4.

Northampton: Tries: Mendez, Pountney; Conversion: Grayson; Penalties: Grayson 4.

London Irish: C O'Shea (capt); K Campbell, J Bishop, R Todd (S Bachop, 68), B Whetstone; J Cunningham, K Putt (O Tonu'u, 51); N Hatley, R Kirke, S Halford, R Strudwick, M Gabey (N Harvey, 18), J Boer (A Mower, 40), K Dawson, R Gallacher.

Northampton: N Beal; C Moir (A Northey, 57), A Bateman, M Allen, B Cohen; P Grayson, D Malone; G Pagel, F Mendez, M Stewart (M Scelzo, 71), A Newman (R Metcalfe, 60), T Rodber, D Mackinnon (S Holmes, 68), A Pountney (S Walte,r 78), P Lam (capt).

Referee: C White (Cheltenham).