Saints enter into spirit of occasion

Rugby Union: Northampton 29 Stirling County 21
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Northampton 29 Stirling County 21

It was more like Hogmanay than Christmas at chilly Franklin's Gardens, where the recently deposed Scottish league champions were greeted by the Northampton Pipe Band.

The visitors, who had made a 350-mile journey by plane and coach, were piped on to an iron-hard pitch where temperatures the previous night had plummeted to minus eight.

There were fears before the start that the game would not make the distance, so to ensure the 3,334 Boxing Day crowd saw something of a match it was reduced to 35 minutes per half. That still gave both sides plenty of time to conjure up eight tries between them. They may have been turning out for kicks, but running rugby was the order of the day, as one has come to expect this season from Northampton, the Second Division leaders.

None of their big names - Tim Rodber, Martin Bayfield, Paul Grayson and Matt Dawson - were on show, but that did not mean there was nothing to watch. County, runners-up in this season's Scottish Championship, had a pair of talented half-backs; Mark McKenzie was sharp on the break and converted all three of his side's tries, although he failed with a sixth- minute penalty.

Generally, the idea was to please the crowd and that was the only penalty that was kicked, apart from the odd touch-finder. The rest of the time both sides ran at each other, as much to keep warm as anything.

The Saints fly-half, Alastair Hepher, ignited the fire with the first two tries. The first came after outstanding preparatory work from the man of the match, Harvey Thorneycroft. Hepher failed with the conversion but made up for it 10 minutes later with his second touch-down. Following a fine one-handed scoop, when the ball popped awkwardly out of a scrum on County's line, the burly half-back swerved over for the try.

Stirling did not respond until the 45th minute but it was worth waiting for, a fine break by McKenzie culminating in the left-wing David Senior's try. By then, though, Thorneycroft was deservedly on the scoresheet following a breathtaking move which saw the ball pass through eight pairs of hands, forwards and backs, before the powerful winger raced over the line, Hepher converting.

If anyone was in any doubt as to what time of year it was, the announcer soon put them right when he invited the crowd to identify the try-scorer in this instance. They responded with a chorus of "Harvey, Harvey, Harvey, Harvey". Pantomime maybe, but definitely no farce.

The centre Andy Beales stretched the lead still further with an unconverted try, before Stirling showed why they have dominated the Scottish scene for the last two seasons.

Their speedy centre, Matt McGrandles, put in a burst that took him clean through the Saints lines before chipping ahead and easily outpacing the cover to touch down under the posts. His second was similar, again culminating in a chip which left egg on the faces of the defenders, and suddenly there were just three points in it.

Throughout, County's covering and tackling had been exemplary. Now it was tested to the full as Saints drove upfield. It took until the last minute to break them down and Ben Ward rounded off a fine move for a try in the corner. Stirling displayed a fine touch of Christmas spirit when, in return for having been piped on, they sang off Northampton to the strains of jingle bells.

Northampton: Tries Hepher 2, Thorneycroft, Beales, Ward; Conversions Hepher 2. Stirling County: Tries Senior, McGrandles 2; Conversions McKenzie 3.

Northampton: L Illott; H Thorneycroft, A Beales, N Law, B Ward; A Hepher, D Elkington (capt); C Allen, C Johnson, M Lewis, S Foale, G Walters, J Wright (P Pask, 30), J Cassell, S Barnes.

Stirling County: C Sangster; R Lewis, J Wright, M McGrandles, Senior; M Mackenzie, A Imrie; J Gibson, A Nielson, B Robertson (capt), M Norval, G Douglas, R McKillop, B Ireland (C Rae, 25), G Walker.

Referee: D Grasshof (Brackley).