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London Irish were in control for the first ten minutes and it showed on the scoreboard, thereafter the pendulum swung decisively in favour of Northampton Saints as the final score confirms.
The sold out signs had been up for days such was the sense of anticipation in the East Midlands for this match between the two clubs at the top of the league going into this weekend’s series of fixtures. The temperature may have hovered around zero in the stands and terraces but the on-pitch action between the two teams that are the leading try-scorers in the current campaign threatened to keep the blood racing. And the early exchanges did not disappoint.
Ryan Lamb kicked off for Irish, Stephen Myler’s attempted clearance kick was charged down, the ball was quickly recycled to Lamb who steadied himself and struck a beautifully weighted drop goal between the posts. Less than a minute gone and the Exiles had the lead.
Saints hadn’t time to recover before Lamb struck again in the fourth minute with his second drop goal after Irish had controlled possession capably.
Saints first excursion into the Exiles’ half resulted in their opening score through Myler when the visitors were penalised off offside at a ruck. Undoubtedly, the points settled nerves among the home team and they started to play with a greater sense of purpose in the face of determined London Irish attack.
Another passage of sustained Irish pressure provided Lamb with the opportunity for a third drop goal but his kick drifted left of the left upright.
Early signs began to emerge of problems that were to impact adversely on the visitors as the match unfolded. Saints were committing more players to the contest at the breakdown than Irish and were getting the reward. In addition, the Irish set pieces were not functioning as effectively as they might.
With only a five day turnaround between two crucial Premiership matches, Irish had rotated their front row resources to help players recover. Saints started with a strong front row with the powerful Soane Tonga’Uiha at loose head prop. As the half developed he had a growing influence not just on the scrum but also in the loose where his off-loading skills in particular were especially effective.
Mid-way through the half Saints had Irish under sustained pressure in their left corner. The Exiles’ pack was struggling as the home team took the scrum option on two penalties. While Irish defended bravely, there was an inevitability about the try score which came through Jamie Elliott in the 21st minute despite Paul Hodgson’s brave efforts to force him into touch. Myler added the extras to give the home team the lead.
Worse was to follow for Irish from the restart. Irish appeared to have the situation under control and were about to launch a counter-attack down their left. Elvis Seveali’i and Hodgson were combining when they lost control of the ball, it was recovered by Brett Sharman, the Saints’ hooker, who deftly chipped ahead, his winger Paul Diggin quickly in pursuit, Diggin kicked on and won the race to touch down in the left corner. Once again Myler kicked the conversion to extend the lead to 17-6.
Lamb and Myler exchanged penalties in the 27th and 31st minutes respectively but it was the home team that were taking charge of the scoreboard and the match. The second rows Christian Day and Mark Sorensen ensured the Nick Kennedy-Bob Casey partnership did not enjoy their customary dominance in the lineout.
Irish had to look to the ball-carrying expertise of Chris Hala’Ufia and Clarke Dermody to earn the hard metres with only rare glimpses of the attacking threat posed by the backs.
With only seconds remaining in the first half, the home team struck a decisive blow when Tonga’Uiha once again led a drive through left midfield. His offload to Jon Clarke in a rolling maul caught Irish off -guard and the outside centre had the space to race through, side-step Delon Armitage and touch down for his team’s third try. Myler had a straightforward conversion to leave the score 27-9 at the interval.
While Irish had the better of the exchanges in the passage of play that followed the re-start, there was an understandable anxiousness about the way they went about clawing back the home team’s 16 point lead. With the temperature continuing to drop, there was no underestimating the difficulty of this task.
The Saints were resolute in defence and resisted a multi-phase passage of play by the Exiles that only occasionally carried a serious threat. Dan Bowden came nearest to breaking through but lost the ball in the tackle.
Having held out the Irish assault and with the midpoint of the half approaching, Saints attacked down the left where they were awarded a scrum. Once again the pack provided a solid platform for scrum-half Ryan Powell to pick-up and break down the blind side before passing to Diggin to run in for his second touchdown. Myler missed the conversion but Saints had the bonus point try and led by 32-9.
The flow of the game was disrupted by the introduction of replacements by both teams and a long injury break to Saints’ winger Diggin – happily he had recovered after the match.
Irish responded sharply after the injury break. In the 65th minute Lamb took a quick tap penalty ten metres form the Saints’ try line and fed Hala’Ufia who powered over for a try which Lamb converted.
The bitter cold obviously impacted on the players’ ability to keep control of the ball and the error count increased. With the home team visibly losing the intensity had had carried them through the match, Irish had a chance to press for a losing bonus point.
With four minutes Topsy Ojo intercepted a misdirected pass by James Downey and raced 60 metres downfield to score under the posts. Lamb added the extras and hopes flickered briefly of a bonus point before they were snuffled out by a Shane Geraghty penalty in the 78th minute.
Saints controlled the ball from the re-start and as the happy home crowd counted down the seconds before Geraghty kicked the ball to touch to bring the match to an end.
Scorers: Northampton: Tries: Elliott (21), Diggin 2 (24, 57), Clarke (39); Conversions: Myler 3. Penalty goals: Myler 2 (6, 31), Geraghty (78). London Irish: Tries: Hala’Ufia (65), Ojo (76); Conversions: Lamb 2. Drop goals: Lamb 2 (1, 4). Penalty goal: Lamb (27).
Scoring sequence (Northampton first): 0-3, 0-6, 3-6, 10-6, 17-6, 17-9, 20-9, 27-9 (half-time) 32-9, 32-16, 32-23, 35-23.
Northampton Saints: 15. G Tonks , 14. J Elliott, 13. J Clarke, 12. J Downey, 11. P Diggin (rep: B Reihana, 65), 10. S Myler (rep: S Geraghty, 65), 9. R Powell (rep: S Commins, 73), 1. S Tonga’uiha (rep: R Dreyer, 59), 2. B Sharman (rep: A Long, 73), 3. B Mujati (rep: T Mercey, 37), 4. M Sorensen (rep: C Clarke, 59), 5. C Day, 6. P Dowson (captain)(rep: M Easter, 65), 7. T Wood, 8. R Wilson.
London Irish: 15. D Armitage (rep: C Malone, 62), 14. T Ojo, 13. E Seveali’i , 12. D Bowden, 11. J Joseph (rep: M Watson, 66), 10. R Lamb, 9. P Hodgson (rep: D Allinson, 60), 1. C Dermody (captain)(rep: A Corbisiero, 52), 2. J Buckland (rep: D Paice, 25), 3. P Ion (rep: F Rautenbach, 52), 4. N Kennedy (rep: M Garvey, 52), 5. B Casey, 6. K Roche, 7. S Armitage (R Thorpe, 62), 8. C Hala’Ufia.
Referee: T Wigglesworth (RFU)