If London Irish are the Iain Duncan Smiths of domestic rugby, hard-working enough, but hopelessly anonymous, Northampton are the Ken Clarkes: genuine heavyweights, dedicated Europhiles and shrewd economists, as their balance sheet regularly proves, but never quite the force they should be. On their day, though, they can make fools of the very best.
As yesterday was one of those days, and as Irish were so far off their game the word "best" could hardly be used in their connection, the second of the weekend's Powergen Cup semi-finals was a bigger non-event than the last Tory Party conference.
The Midlanders scored two laughably soft tries in the first half, then disappeared over the hills by rattling up 17 points in six minutes directly after the interval. London Irish were fortunate to be within 30 points at the finish, so poor was their ball retention and so muddled their attacking strategy. With the notable exceptions of Paul Sackey, who posed a threat of sorts on the right wing, and the eternally willing Paul Gustard, their front-line players flunked it. "We talked about a lot of things before the game, but delivered on none of them," grimaced Conor O'Shea, their managing director.
Having splattered Northampton all over Twickenham to win this trophy last season, the Exiles looked the part on the team sheet: they had the highly-rated Mike Worsley and the grizzled Springbok Naka Drotske in the front row, the improving Nick Kennedy at lock, the prolific Barry Everitt to kick the goals and, most importantly, Brendan Venter in midfield. No great lover of Northampton, the South African centre was seriously motivated for one last dart at some silverware before returning to Cape Town for good this summer. A minor epic was in prospect.
Sadly, the prospect faded to grey. Venter made an unusual number of errors – nowhere near as many as Mark Mapletoft, the much-travelled Exiles full-back, but plenty all the same – and the Irish forwards, usually so organised at scrum and breakdown, were similarly off-colour. They did not even begin to deal with Budge Pountney, who turned in a ball-pilfering performance of Test class a month after turning his back on an international career with Scotland, and found Matthew Dawson even more baffling. The scrum-half ran them ragged, and, in so doing, probably ran all the way into the England team for this weekend's Six Nations game with Italy.
Dawson conceded an early penalty to Everitt when he gave Chris White, the referee, a piece of his mind, but then buttoned his lip and concentrated on slaughtering the Exiles with his potent brand of broken-field brilliance. Time and again he slipped into space, pinned back his ears and darted for the corners, and the cover defence had to strain every sinew to haul him down. Completely on the back foot, Irish leaked one try to Steve Williams direct from a line-out and another to Pountney from a close-range penalty tap.
Had it not been for Everitt's accuracy, Northampton would have been done and dusted by the break. As it was, the deed was completed before the second half was more than a few minutes old. Mark Connors, a significant influence in the Northampton back row, scored within 50 seconds of the re-start after James Brooks had beaten Michael Horak to one of Paul Grayson's clever, hanging kicks. Grayson added a penalty to stretch the lead to 15 points, and when Brooks set sail into the Irish 22, Peter Jorgensen materialised on his shoulder to heap another seven points' worth of misery on the holders.
Response there came none: Northampton lost Pountney to the sin-bin yet still remained in the comfy chair, and when the captain returned with the score unchanged at 31-9, he completed a handy afternoon's work by helping Darren Fox over the line for the last knockings. The youngster had quite a game yesterday, but there again, Edward Fox would have looked good against opponents of this quality. London Irish have problems, for sure.
London Irish: Penalties Everitt 3. Northampton: Tries Williams, Pountney, Connors, Jorgensen, Fox; Conversions Grayson 5; Penalty Grayson.
London Irish: M Mapletoft (K Barrett, 81); P Sackey, N Burrows (G Appleford, 22), B Venter, M Horak; B Everitt, H Martens; M Worsley (N Hatley, 45), N Drotske (A Flavin, h-t), R Hardwick (S Halford, 45), R Casey (G Delaney, 81), N Kennedy, P Gustard (capt), K Dawson, C Sheasby.
Northampton: N Beal; J Brooks, C Hyndman (P Jorgensen, 45), J Leslie (M Tucker, 62), B Reihana; P Grayson, M Dawson (J Howard, 78); T Smith (C Budgen, 78), S Thompson (D Richmond, 72), R Morris, M Lord, S Williams (R Hunter, 72), D Fox, A Pountney (capt, M Soden, 78), M Connors.
Referee: C White (Gloucestershire).
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