Robinson and Drahm reinforce Northampton for next season

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The Independent Online

Northampton, third in this season's Premiership and runners-up in the Powergen Cup, clearly have a couple of things going for them - namely, an ambitious streak the width of the East Midlands and an influential coach from New Zealand in the shape of Wayne Smith.

Aware that Matt Dawson, their world-class scrum-half, will play rather less than 20 games for them next season, the Saints moved yesterday to secure a potent replacement in Mark Robinson, the former All Black whose union skills have recently been underpinned by a brief spell in professional rugby league.

The 27-year-old former North Harbour captain and Super 12 stalwart - he spent five years with the Auckland Blues before joining the New Zealand Warriors league outfit last January - played for the Barbarians in their surprisingly comprehensive victory over an England XV on Sunday and signed a two-year deal with the former European champions yesterday.

Shane Drahm, the Bristol utility back, also committed himself to a two-year contract, thereby giving the Saints goal-kicking cover for Paul Grayson, who, like Dawson, is very much in England's plans.

Neither will be considered an overseas player: Robinson has European Union credentials because his father is British, while Drahm's wife holds a British passport. This means that Northampton will be able to play a full hand of imports, including the likes of Andrew Blowers and Mark Connors as well as the exceptional New Zealand seven-a-side specialist Bruce Reihana, in every game. They are already looking a good bet for the 2003-04 title and will expect to leave a mark on the Heineken Cup as well.

Drahm's departure from Bristol is merely the latest smack in the teeth for the relegated West Countrymen, who are losing players by the day. Phil Christophers, Daryl Gibson, Felipe Contepomi, Andrew Sheridan, Julian White, Garath Archer, Alex Brown and Rhys Oakley have jumped ship in the 20 days since the end of the regular season, and a number of others - the scrum-half Agustin Pichot and the flanker Michael Lipman included - are expected to bid their farewells.

Even by the standards of the professional era, with its low premium on club loyalty, the rush for the exit door has been unedifying in the extreme.

Loyalty does matter to the likes of Chris Fortey, happily. Gloucester's second-string hooker, starved of senior opportunities this year through a depressing combination of injury frustration and French brilliance in the shape of Olivier Azam, has nevertheless remained true to his roots and signed a two-year extension to his contract. Azam's imminent departure for Montferrand played no small part in his decision, but his lifelong connection to Gloucester rugby - he is a product of Gordon League, one of the many powerful local junior sides - was another factor.

Persistent rumours that Phil Greening, the Wasps hooker, will return to Gloucester next season remain no more than that. However, yesterday's news from the Acton training ground may persuade Greening to seek alternative employment with his home club. He played in last weekend's Parker Pen Challenge Cup victory over Bath, but will not start tomorrow's Zurich Premiership finale at Twickenham, where the opposition just happens to be...Gloucester. Trevor Leota, the spherical Samoan, has been given the nod.

The Wasps coach, Warren Gatland, has made two further changes. John Rudd has a hamstring problem, so Kenny Logan gets a start on the wing, while Rob Howley takes over from Martyn Wood at scrum-half.

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