Saints face ultimate test of faith

Steve Bale discovers the secret of Northampton's success this season as they prepare to meet Bath in the Pilkington Cup today
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It says everything about the swathe Northampton have this season easily cut through English rugby union's Second Division that this afternoon's Pilkington Cup tie at Bath will tell them more about themselves than their 10 league games put together.

A glance at the figures reveals that Northampton are in a league of their own as far as National League Two is concerned: 10 straight wins at an average of 53-12 for a points differential of 402, more than 300 better than the next best.

The Saints have been playing divine rugby, fit to grace the First Division, and it is their misfortune that Bath, who happen to be the only other side in the national leagues with a 10-from-10 record, have been playing rugby fit to grace the top of the First Division.

That Northampton are in the Second Division at all is not readily explicable, beyond the obvious truth that as they finished bottom last season they deserved to go down whatever the purported quality of the players at their disposal. Equally imponderable is whether they would be playing this sort of rugby now if they, rather than West Hartlepool and Harlequins, had somehow hung on last April.

"I would still rather it hadn't happened," Ian McGeechan, their coaching director, said. "But it's fair to say there would have been different pressures on us and different skills against us in the First Division and quite clearly a different percentage of possession we could use.

"The commitment we made to each other was that winning would not be enough in the Second Division. We had to play like a top First Division side against Second Division opposition. We've probably surprised ourselves by how it's worked out, at how well we've done playing the game at the fastest possible pace. But going to Bath is as big an imponderable as how our rugby would work in the league, because we haven't been having to prove ourselves week-in week-out."

McGeechan is the former Scotland and Lions player and coach who discovered the only way was down when he took on the job at Franklin's Gardens at a time of last season when his new charges were already sliding towards the Second Division. After the way this famous but faded club had dragged itself out of oblivion in the late Eighties, it was a bitter legacy.

Underlying Northampton's problems was that the departure of Barrie Corless, their first coaching director, and the ex-All Black captain Wayne Shelford had left a void that was left unfilled until McGeechan's arrival. The relationship between Glenn Ross, the New Zealander whom Shelford had been instrumental in bringing to coach the Saints, and the players deteriorated and by last season a team who had been challenging for honours in the early Nineties had lost both spirit and purpose.

Perhaps it needed the catharsis of relegation. Not only are Northampton on their way back to the First Division at the first attempt, they now have a big-money backer and have voted themselves into a limited company in readiness for the first blast of club professionalism. They are as well prepared as any club for the dam-burst that will come with the end of the Rugby Union's moratorium in May.

For this hectic progression from failure to success, Northampton owe their greatest debt to Tim Rodber, the captain who took them down and is about to take them up again; a sort of Grand Old Duke of York in reverse. The most vital service he rendered was in persuading the members of last season's side to stay loyal, even though it can now be seen that the inevitably poorer standard of rugby has done nothing for his England prospects.

Not that others could complain. Martin Bayfield withstood Harlequins' blandish- ments and kept his England place alongside Rodber. Paul Grayson and Matthew Dawson have formed a new England half-back partnership despite - or should that be because of? - playing for Northampton.

Even so, Rodber is probably right to lay much of the blame for his unwontedly pallid performances against South Africa and Western Samoa at the door of Second Division rugby, however noble Northampton's intention may be to rise above this self-inflicted milieu. "Going from the Second Division to international rugby has been tough for me," he said.

"But the loyalty factor was something I felt very strongly about. I had always played for Northampton and had no desire to play anywhere else. I canvassed everyone else, and everyone else was of the same opinion. So we've stuck together and been able to develop the style of rugby we wanted, iron out the wrinkles as it were - which we would not have been able to do in the First Division."

The notion of personal sacrifice in the interests of a wider cause comes well from a serving officer. But Lt Rodber of the Green Howards, the oldest unamalgamated regiment in the army, knows all too well that the price could yet be his England back-row place - hence the magnitude of today's match, for Rodber personally, every bit as much as his company of Saints.