Northampton huffed and puffed their way to the top of the Aviva Premiership, content in the knowledge that not every game is a thing of beauty. Even the sun dappling Reading after a morning’s rain could not cast a glow over proceedings, though equally London Irish can take pride in their hard-working display against the champions.
These are the ugly games when titles are won and lost. Few of Northampton’s England contingent stamped any authority on proceedings, space was at a premium for George North and the visitors also lost another England squad member, Lee Dickson, before the match was 20 minutes old.
On an afternoon when three England forwards, Dylan Hartley, Tom Wood (both expected to play against Sale Sharks next weekend) and the unfortunate Alex Corbisiero, were all injured absentees, the sight of Dickson leaving with damaged ribs was dampening for club and country.
So it was left to unsung heroes, the likes of flanker Jon Fisher visiting his former employers, and Mike Haywood to earn their corn.
In many ways the game was summed up by the move six minutes from the end, when Phil Dowson and Alex Waller drove to within a metre of the Irish line. The defence slowed the ball and when it was finally spun left, Luther Burrell’s pass in the tackle went behind Ben Foden and the Irish scrambled clear.
Burrell had already claimed the only try of the game after 34 minutes when Northampton countered from an Irish kick, North’s pass allowing his centre to use Courtney Lawes as a foil and just make the line through the tackles of Shane Geraghty and Tomas O’Leary.
“Luther’s in a competitive position with England and he enjoys that,” Jim Mallinder, Northampton’s director of rugby, said. “Throughout his career he’s been up against it, he’s not worried about other contenders for the 12 shirt, he’s concentrating on playing well for Saints.”
The try contributed to Northampton’s 10-point lead after a humdrum first half, but the Irish raised themselves and Geraghty kicked them back into contention. Northampton’s own indiscipline helped the home cause and they might even have taken a lead but, within the space of two minutes, Geraghty pushed a dropped goal and a penalty wide.
Irish had struggled for set-piece ball in the first half-hour but, after the interval, their rumbustious back row forced the pace. Prop Moray Low was arguably the man of the match, as a ball winner and ball user, and the losing bonus point was deserved for the club which has had the hardest of starts to the season.
“If we can get a result down at Exeter next week, we can look back at this block of six games with pride,” Brian Smith, their director of rugby, said.
The Irish have already played Harlequins, Saracens, Leicester and Northampton with some distinction this season. “We need to be in the contest at the back end of games against these top teams. Week on week we are earning the respect of opponents,” he added. “The next step is putting these teams away.”
London Irish: A Fenby; A Lewington, F Mulchrone, S Geraghty, J Short; C Noakes, T O’Leary (D Allinson 60); T Court (M Parr 60), D Paice, H Aulika (G Cross 72), G Skivington (capt), J Sinclair, K Low, B Cowan (T Guest 60), L Narraway.
Northampton: B Foden; K Pisi, G Pisi, L Burrell, G North; S Myler, L Dickson (capt, K Fotuali’i 19); A Waller (E Waller 78), M Haywood (R McMillan 75), S Ma’afu (G Denman 60), C Lawes, J Craig, C Clark, J Fisher (P Dowson 65), S Manoa.
Referee: M Carley (Kent).
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