Saints happy to be home

Northampton 31 London Irish 21
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In A fierce, dog-eat-dog scrap, Northampton savaged their rivals for an uncomfortable place in the relegation zone. The prospect of a playoff to ensure continued life in Division One next season bucked them up enough to dismiss a passionate but flawed London Irish challenge.

A week ago, Saints had seemed listless in losing away at Bristol. Yesterday, at home in Franklins Gardens, the grit and vigour were back - all part of Northampton's habit this season of travelling badly but staying put in victorious style.

And some style there was, particularly from Northampton's young outside half, Alastair Hepher. He is big and looks awkward, but still managed to sell outrageous dummies to create the first two Northampton tries, the first for himself with less than a minute gone, and the second for Gregor Townsend in the centre outside him.

He is a local boy with a place at Newcastle University. At 22, he has the time and perhaps the talent to challenge England's outside half, Paul Grayson, for a permanent place in the Northampton side. Hepher, like Grayson, has a sure boot, putting over four penalties and a couple of conversions yesterday.

Northampton's third try, also in the first half, was scored when the hooker Allen Clarke was shunted over in a maul.

If Hepher provided the ornaments, the Saints' back row laid most of the foundations. With Tim Rodber out nursing a cricked neck, Grant Seely, abetted by Dave Merlin and Justyn Cassell on the flanks, proved more than adequate substitutes. The three of them continually broke off scrums, rampaging and wreaking havoc in the loose.

For all but the last 20 minutes, London Irish had no real answer to the pace and ferocity of the Northampton attack. With the backs rarely threatening, the pack occasionally took it on themselves in traditional Irish fashion, only to bump up against a solid wall.

The Irish outside-half, David Humphreys, provided occasional sparkle, but beyond that what serious attack there was often ended in a fumble. Humphreys missed a string of easy penalties, landing only two before leaving the field. The full back, Conor O'Shea, kicked the side's third penalty.

In the second half, London Irish did buck up , reinforced by wholesale substitution in the front row. With a bit more vim emerging, the flanker, Kieron Dawson, barged over to keep the game alive. With captain Gary Halpin continually goading his troops forward, they got their second try when Ray Hennessy had the ball worked to him in space on the right wing. O'Shea kicked one of the conversions, enough to make the score respectable without threatening Northampton's dominance.

Saints now have a comfortable space between themselves and the bottom four relegation zone places. London Irish are now firmly in the danger area. Yesterday, there seemed a big gap between the sides: the gap between first and second division?

Northampton: I Hunter; N Beal, G Townsend, M Allen, H Thorneycroft (M Dods, 61); A Hepher, M Dawson (capt); M Volland, A Clarke, M Hynes, J Phillips, S Foale, D Merlin, J Cassell, G Seely (S Barnes, 67).

London Irish: C O'Shea; N Woods, J Bishop, S Burns, R Hennessy; D Humphreys (N Burrow, 42), N Hogan; J Fitzpatrick (S Burns, 67), T Redmond (R Kellam, 67), G Halpin (capt), G Fulcher, A Meadows (K Spicer, 67), K O'Connell, R Yeabsley, K Dawson (C Bird, 62).

Referee: A Rowden (Berkshire).