Smith's gamble pays off as holders crash

Northampton 38 Newcastle Falcons 7
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The Independent Online

Keith Barwell, Northampton's owner, happily restored to health after a recent illness, wrote in the match programme that club rugby would soon be "more important" than international games. "Every club game is close and exciting," he added. Exciting, yes, but Barwell had picked the wrong night for an encounter of the close kind.

Stung by a tepid Premiership defeat at Leicester a fortnight before this semi-final, Northampton wrenched Newcastle's hands from the cup with four tries among 33 unanswered points in an astonishingly one-sided first half.

In truth, the Saints' reverse at home to Sale earlier last month had also played its part, ending as it did a honeymoon period for Northampton's coach, Wayne Smith, of seven wins in eight matches since his arrival from New Zealand. Olivier Brouzet spread some "French love" around the camp – in the words of captain Budge Pountney – and Smith did the rest with a high-risk selection in the forwards and an early morning wake-up call for training. If they reproduce this form at Twickenham next month, they will surely capture the cup at the third attempt after final defeats in 1991 and 2000.

A subdued Rob Andrew, Newcastle's director of rugby, admitted he had not been on the end of such a 40-minute drubbing since his Cambridge University days. "Everything Northampton did turned to gold," said Andrew, who insisted Jonny Wilkinson was "100 per cent" fit from the calf strain the fly-half suffered the previous week with England in France. "I thought we got a bit of pride back in the second half," added Andrew. "That was all that was at stake."

Smith's shock treatment for his Northampton charges included dropping his Lions namesake, Tom, and England's Steve Thompson – although both came on in the second half – and setting his squad's alarm clocks for some uncommon hours. "I didn't realise there were two 7.30's in the day," quipped Pountney. The front row understudies, Robbie Morris and Dan Richmond, charged round like rhinos on hot coals. And at scrum-half, Matt Dawson could hardly believe his luck. "In the first half we played some outstanding rugby," Dawson said. "Up front they absolutely obliterated Newcastle, created a few holes for me, and made life pretty easy. We had some very quick ball and the back line were devastating at times; the angles and the handling from them were second to none."

Smith has got his pack doing the basics well in tight and loose, and out wide Ben Cohen and Nick Beal are back to their strong and straight-running best. At 13-0 down midway through the first half, Newcastle were theoretically in touch. In practice, they lost Hugh Vyvyan to the sin-bin in the 20th minute, and all hope soon followed when Peter Jorgensen, Grant Seely and Craig Moir fairly hurtled over for three tries in nine minutes.

Northampton and London Irish are not the best of friends after their Premiership meeting at the end of December led to a citing case against Saints' prop, Matt Stewart. Smith's summation of the opposition in the final was brief: "They've got a fairly structured style of play and a specific defence. But we've got to get on and win some league games before then." It is a theme that Pountney, too, is drumming into his men. "We've had a bit of a rollocking from Budge," admitted Dawson, "saying this is how we want to play, week to week, and don't worry about the final."

Northampton: Tries: Seely 2, Jorgensen 2, Moir. Conversions: Grayson 2.Penalties: Grayson 3.Newcastle: Try: Stephenson. Conversion: Wilkinson.

Northampton: N Beal; C Moir, P Jorgensen, J Leslie (M Tucker, 69), B Cohen; P Grayson (J Brooks, 58), M Dawson (I Vass, 74); R Morris (T Smith, h-t), D Richmond (S Thompson, 50), M Stewart (Morris, 72), J Ackermann, O Brouzet, A Blowers (M Soden, 71), B Pountney (capt), G Seely

Newcastle: L Botham; M Stephenson, J Noon, T May, V Tuigamala; J Wilkinson, G Armstrong; G Graham, M Thompson (N Makin, 64), M Hurter, H Vyvyan, S Grimes, E Taione, A Mower, P Lam (capt)

Referee: T Spreadbury (Somerset)