Fast, frantic and occasionally furious
Prior to the game we were told that Topsy Ojo had been relegated to the bench and that our two wingers would be the venerable Bish and the dashing ‘Losi’ Tagicakibau. For those of us with defence on the mind this was something of a relief, although one feels certain that the young man’s day has yet to come. He will surely return, if hopefully as a wiser man.
I have to say that much talk in the hotel bar was of the ‘too close to call’ variety, befitting our humble status at 11th in the GP, and/or reflecting our lack of knowledge of the Saints pack, and our respect for messrs Marks and Spencer at half back. Despite the natural pessimism arising from our creating a sow’s ear from a silk purse on so many occasions recently, there was also a feeling that if we did manage to get some decent ball out to the threes, our even-handed selection of OAPs and young gentlemen might just carry a little too much lead for their opponents, a largely untried combination.
We also had hopes that the new ‘marriage’ of Olivier Magne and young Steffon Armitage at flanker would pay dividends. It did. Magne was at his majestic best, prowling the prairies of the Madstad looking for buffalo to spear, while Steffon was down on the deck securing ball all day. We never saw any of his trademark kamikaze runs through the opposition, the ones in which he so closely resembles the ball in a high speed pinball machine, but his close-quarters contribution was actually far more valuable. Originally announced at blindside and openside flanker respectively, they actually played right and left, dividing the workload admirably.
By the end of the game those of us who had felt, let’s just say, less than totally confident of victory, were casting around for memories of the one optimistic remark we may have uttered beforehand – a bit like the voters in a Parish Council election telling all ten candidates they had voted for them, when there were only eight seats to fill.
In the backs, all our young gentlemen acquitted themselves with honour and then a bit. 20 year old Shane Geraghty at 10 displayed calm, skill and occasional guile throughout, directing play like a more experienced general, and leaving Catt at 12 with very little mopping up to do. This allowed the Cattmeister to concentrate on playing a constructive and creative game, which he did with aplomb, both his field kicking and his passing being of the highest quality throughout. After our various recent, cramped midfield exhibitions, it was quite a contrast, made possible entirely by the space offered by Hodgson’s swift service and by Geraghty’s choice and execution of options. I hate to think of the matches we might have won recently, had our midfield functioned as well as this one did.
Outside Catt, Dom Feau’nati was a revelation at 13, even if his grey scrum cap made it all too easy to mistake him for a rejuvenated Bob Casey! Dom constantly broke the gain line, passed better than wings are thought to pass, and made hard yards through some initially determined Northampton tackling. Whatever else they lacked (Skill? Imagination? Togetherness?) the Saints threes never stopped tackling, and they cannot be accused of not trying. However, their efforts didn’t gel, and by the end of 80 minutes one had the feeling that Spencer was rather good at setting himself up and not quite so adept at setting up his colleagues.
At the back Delon Armitage had his best game of the season by a country mile. He tackled like the good ‘un that some of us knew him to be, he ran well and intelligently, set up others, took his chances, and fielded high kicks with courage and the enemy on his back. Not a word agin him from this reporter!
And then out wide we had Losi and Bish, who confusingly seemed to swap wings at half time. Does Bish really like the West stand more? It may explain Losi’s comparative absence from this report. Couldn’t see him for much of the time. Both of them tackled and ran well and intelligently. What more can you ask?
Up front the pack stayed at the coal face without let or hindrance, knocking off the odd line-out, backing up their colleagues, turning over ball and not allowing themselves to be turned over very much at all. In short they looked and played like a real pack, making life very hard for their immediate opponents, just as their opponents didn't really make life very easy for them! The Saints front and back rows were pretty competitive throughout but never to the point of ascendancy. I’ll appeal to the cognosecenti of scrummaging to comment on their display of the more arcane forward’s art, but it looked pretty damned good to this ex-back.
The game as a whole was littered by interuptions from Mr Maybank's whistle, but try hard as I could, I was not able to be over-critical in terms of "wrong" decisions either way. Was he a little whistle-happy? I don't know!
What's with the furious in the title of this report? Well, there did seem to be an awful lot of handbag examinations in the first half, and I think I am right in recalling that they were all penalised against Saints. I noted the names of messrs Hartley, Budgen and Tupai as looking criminally guilty, but if I am honest about it, I really cannot tell what skullduggery was going on. Since no lasting damage seemed to be done I am not going to linger on the subject, now or later.
A bit of a game
Saints kick off South to North, straight to Nick Kennedy on the right wing. Catt makes a good touch, for a Saints line-out, to which they throw long, far too long. Magne takes the ball in open space, and down the Irish line it speeds, through two or three long passes, and so to Catt. Mike doesn’t hesitate, but puts over what I can only describe as an amusing cross-field kick, back to Bishop on the right wing at half way. It takes a week to land in his grateful arms, without undue Northampton interference, until he sets off towards the line. A simple in-field lob over his two tacklers to the waiting Delon Armitage sets up the full back for a canter over the whitewash about half way out from the sticks. Saints charge the kick rather vehemently, and Shane pulls it slightly.
5-0 after 1 minute 20 seconds
The second kick off again comes to Kennedy, but this time like an exocet, laterally at waist height. Inevitably, he drops it. At the ensuing scrum Steffon dives upon the emerging ball, but then gets penalised for his conduct over it. Spencer pushes the penalty wide.
From the drop-out play moves up into the Irish 22 where both teams compare handbags beside the posts. From halfway it looks as though Mr Maybank may have lost it, but he manages to calm tempers sufficiently to penalise Saints, after Casey has led a three man walk-out into the Saints ranks from behind the try line. Presumably he feels annoyed by something?
Play takes a good Geraghty line kick and a mere five minutes to work its way back to within range of the Northampton line, where Dom Feau’nati makes a rumbling break, following an East stand line-out, aided and abetted by Mr Maybank’s flailing arm indicating advantage. Before you can say boo, Hodgson has taken the penalty as a tap kick and scuttled over the line under the posts. Geraghty converts.
12-0 after 10 minutes
A Saints penalty for offside shortly after kick-off is drilled behind the Irish defence and into touch behind the 22. However, the visitors manage to get penalised for delaying the throw-in. Somehow we miss touch and lose possession, recover possession from the kick back and, eventually, spin it wide to the left. Genuinely exciting stuff, as some long passes (involving Murphy, Casey, Catt and Delon) all find target, and play swings to the left wing, then back to midfield, out to the left and back again. We knock on inside the Saints’ 22.
Minutes later Saints hack on from one 22 to the other, where they prevent Hodgson from rising, having dropped upon the loose ball. We take a short one and mess it up, and some ineffectual play is finally brought to a halt after 20 minutes have elapsed, when Geraghty misses a penalty for offside in the Northampton threes, hitting the post.
Dodge spills the ball in a fierce tackle by wee Tam Smith (wee my foot!) and Carlos Spencer makes a dangerous break left, passing the ball to a sadly isolated Diggen on the left wing. I note that, not for the first time, the Saints backline seem curiously interested in the shirts our guys are wearing. They seem to tug at them every time they see one passing. Hope Mr Maybank doesn’t cotton on. He’ll be very cross!
Play eventually dies in the Irish East stand corner, but not before we in the comfy seats have resigned ourselves to a score against. Happily no one has told the team. Saints scrap on, on our line, and curiously seem to prefer scrums to penalties, having been awarded two. I cannot quite fathom this out. They have not been dominating the set piece.
Inevitably the attackers knock on, and we belt the ball a long way downfield, and turn over their counter-attack. Shane breaks and starts an interesting football move, which flows to half way before a boot finally puts the ball ahead of rather than among the onrushing mob. Delon emerges as Rooney-in-chief and cleverly dribbles it downfield, around a couple of bemused opponents, before shooting for goal and missing right of the posts. Bish drops on the dying ball for a try, a fitting reward for his having set up Delon's earlier one. Geraghty converts.
19-0 after 30 minutes
We are now starting to get the idea that, for the first time this season, it might, just might, be our day. Cautious optimism starts to surface, and my usually manky neighbour, much given to shouting abuse at our own players during the last many seasons, is reduced to happy silence.
Hartley, the Saints over-angry hooker is at last dealt with by Mr Maybank, and given a Yellow card with six minutes of the half remaining, soon to be replaced by Richmond with Tupai (6) leaving the field to maintain numbers at 14.
Geraghty kicks a penalty for an offence I haven’t noted and it’s
22-0 after 38 minutes
Richard Skuse replaces Tonga Lea’aetoa at tight head. My two Saints guests are berated by my manky neighbour for cheering for their team, and he in turn is berated by me. Sometimes it is a heavy burden following London Irish! My note-taking descends to farce.
Hartley returns. Danie Coetzee isn’t looking well, and is replaced by Robbie Russell. Following a line out Catty drops into the pocket and we await the inevitable attempt on the sticks. Success!
25-0 after 5 minutes
The Irish cheering is noticeably far stronger than it has been since last season, but I suppose the lads and lassies have something to cheer about. Aware of his responsibilities as a leader, and realising that a drop goal is a bit pathetic when you are already more than 20 points ahead, Catty now produces his own answer to Steve McLaren’s problems, by hacking through from halfway, and (just) keeping ahead in the chase after the ball. We can hear him saying to himself that if he picks it up he’ll get caught, so he doesn’t bother, and dribbles it (OK, hacks it?) all the way over the line. I guess he knew he’d score if he dropped on it, although one wag is heard to say that he only falls on the ball out of exhaustion! How rude! Geraghty converts.
32-0 after 8 minutes
Are we over-confident at this point, or do we see Saints in their true colours? For the next five minutes Northampton assault the London Irish line with every technique in the book. Rolling mauls, diving players, the lot. Mr Maybank disallows one try as being held up – and he does so without any hesitation – but in the end Robinson scampers in at the left corner, direct from a five metre scrum. Spencer fails to convert.
32-5 after 14 minutes
In the next ten minutes I note Hudson replacing Kennedy and McCullen coming on for Murphy, but really, apart from that and the odd cut and thrust of the game there is nothing worth reporting on until Irish are offered a penalty in front of the posts on the 22. Geraghty cannot refuse such an offer.
35-5 after 23 minutes
Play from the kick-off enters the Irish 22 where our backs are adjudged offside, and Mr Maybank signals advantage as the ball is hacked through to Spencer, who deliberately knocks on in order presumably to get the penalty. The referee seems not to see the justice of this situation and reverses the penalty, in favour of the hosts.
Tight head Tonga now returns to the fray, replacing Neal Hatley at loose head. Topsy Ojo replaces Losi on the East stand wing. Delon is limping, but must be malingering, otherwise management would surely send on Horak?
Hodgson chips nicely to the line in the left corner, but he and Bish are beaten to it. Our line-out, from the Saints' very short rescue kick for touch, is tapped down to Russell at the front but he is nabbed, and the ball goes down the line to Topsy who dives into the right corner with his first touch of the ball. The kick is too far out and fails.
40-5 after 29 minutes
The last ten minutes are bitty, and there are no scores, so I shan’t tell you a thing about them. Suffice to say that Mike Catt is announced as MOTM, and deservedly so – although had the award gone elsewhere no one would complain. Nearly everyone has a claim to it.
You can only play what’s in front of you, and that’s what we did. Job done and you really can’t ask for much more. However, despite the cleanliness of much of our play (few enough penalties, and very few unforced errors) it is hard to reach finite conclusions about impending world domination from this display by London Irish. I won’t say that Saints were downright poor, but on the evidence of this afternoon, there are 11 better teams in the Premiership.
However … our play WAS so much better than it has been recently, and I suspect that the confidence it will have produced, coupled with the enjoyment evident on every player’s face, may have sown the seeds of the little green shoots that we hesitate to mention.
The sourfaces among us will mutter things about ‘about time too’ and how they don’t want to watch losers. I am just happy to have watched a cheerful Irish side achieve notable superiority in all aspects of the game, and restore the bloom to its cheeks. I shall await the outcome of other matches before arriving at any hard and fast conclusions, and for now will only say … oh to hell with it …Wasn’t it great?
: 15. D Armitage, 14. J Bishop, 13. D Feaunati, 12. M Catt (captain), 11. S Tagicakibau (rep: T Ojo, 67), 10. S Geraghty, 9. P Hodgson (rep: R Rees, 69), 1. N Hatley (rep: T Lea'aetoa, 66), 2. D Coetzee (rep: R Russell, 44), 3. T Lea'aetoa (rep: R Skuse, 40), 4. N Kennedy (rep: J Hudson, 59), 5. B Casey, 6. O Magne, 7. S Armitage, 8. P Murphy (rep: A McCullen, 59).
: 15. V Going (rep: I Vass, 76), 14. M Bourett, 13. R Kydd (rep: S Mallon, 59), 12. L Myring, 11. P Diggin, 10. C Spencer, 9. M Robinson, 1. T Smith (rep: S Tonga'uiha, 58), 2. D Hartley, 3. C Budgen, 4. Damien Browne (rep: M Lord, 65), 5. D Gerard, 6. P Tupai (rep: D Richmond, 37-44), 7. D Fox (captain), 8. M Easter (rep: Daniel Browne, 57).