Early penalties hand stuttering Saints the edge

London Irish 12 Northampton 14

David Llewellyn
Monday 28 October 2002 01:00
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The plastic glasses, empty crisp packets and other sundry rubbish that littered the pitch at the end of a dreary, unedifying spectacle were symbolic of much of what had taken place.

True, London Irish displayed tremendous defence; true, they fought back well after one of the more bizarre starts to a rugby match; true, Northampton slipped away with four points that lifted them to third and would have lifted their fans, but there was some dire stuff.

At the end of it all Wayne Smith, the Northampton director of rugby, said: "It was ugly, but it was beautiful. To win away is good. To win here is better." And in seeking a reason for a scrappy performance from his crew he offered: "We wanted to win this badly," which they did, "all week we had trained like Tarzan; today we played like Jane."

Given that start which saw the Exiles concede a penalty after two seconds, when hooker Naka Drotske was adjudged to have obstructed after Northampton kicked off, and given the fact that by the time a further eight minutes had elapsed the Irish were another two penalties down, they did remarkably well to scramble their way back into the match.

Smith felt that his side were jittery when they got themselves into position to strike. It was not unreasonable to expect Saints, with pacy finishers of the calibre of Ben Cohen, Oriol Ripol and Nick Beal, to run away with a win and a bonus point. But Smith's assessment certainly looked on the button.

All of their possession after Cohen's opportunistic chase and try was pointless. But Irish fared no better. Thankfully for them at least the fly-half Barry Everitt rediscovered his place-kicking skills, landing the four penalties that kept them in touch, although he missed with two drop goal attempts as time ticked away.

But the tension of the occasion, and the recent history between the two sides enveloped everything. Memories of last season's cup final victory by Irish and the subsequent thrashing they received in the Championship quarter-final play-off were still too fresh.

The loss of their flanker Andrew Blowers, who had risen above the mediocrity around him until he found himself on the blunt end of an over-enthusiastic, even questionable, hand-off by the Irish centre Brendan Venter which left the former All Black dazed and out of the match, will not have helped relations between the two clubs.

Conor O'Shea, Smith's opposite number, had the grace to admit it was not a great spectacle, but insisted: "We deserved to win. We got into good positions but then turned over by not being precise enough. We may have to spend the week practising attacking in the opponents' 22.

"But to start as we did, then to be edged out by only two points means at some stage that we will turn things around." They will have to start soon, before a serious gap opens up in the table between them and the rest of the Premiership.

London Irish: Penalties Everitt 4. Northampton: Try Cohen; Conversion Grayson; Penalties Grayson 2.

London Irish: M Horak; P Sackey, G Appleford, B Venter, J Bishop; B Everitt, D Edwards; N Hatley (M Worsley, 46), N Drotske, S Halford (R Hardwick, 49), R Strudwick (capt), K Burke, P Gustard, C Sheasby, K Dawson.

Northampton: N Beal (J Sleightholme, 59); O Ripol (J Brooks, 72), M Tucker, J Leslie, B Cohen; P Grayson, M Dawson; T Smith, S Thompson, R Morris (M Stewart, 52), S Williams, M Connors, A Blowers (J Phillips, 58), G Seely (M Soden, 79), B Pountney (capt).

Referee: S Leyshon (Bristol).

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