“This is getting tedious,” the older gentleman with the black, green and gold bobble hat grumbled 31 minutes into the match. Seconds later London Irish’s hooker Agustin Creevy rumbled over from close range, rounding off a play with double-digit phases, all of which employed short passes around the fringe near the Northampton Saints’ try line.
If we learned anything from the British and Irish Lions series in South Africa it is that few fans want to see a trudging game dominated by unimaginative forwards and littered with hoisted kicks. This perhaps explains why the home side, playing in front of a near capacity crowd, looked to run the ball when in possession, and why their guests, unconcerned with winning any friends, took a leaf out of the Springboks’ book.
A schism has widened between two seemingly contrasting philosophies on how the game should be played. This result will be viewed as a victory for the romantics, for those who believe that running rugby represents all that is good about the sport. That the decisive moment was an act of Irish mundanity will only amplify this claim.
The contest began under a deluge. But Dan Biggar, on a rugby field for the first time since limping off injured in the third Test of the Lions series, was here to play ball. Inside him he had an equally willing participant in Alex Mitchell and the two half-backs offered fizzing passes and cute pops off the shoulder as if bathed in summer sunshine.
“In any competition there will be a battle between the team that wants to play contact and the team that wants to play space,” Northampton’s head coach, Chris Boyd, said before opting for a diplomatic middle ground. His views, though, were evidenced by his side’s approach.
A Biggar penalty gave them the lead that was stretched by Tom Collins’ score in the corner on nine minutes. Mitchell orchestrated a move that navigated the width of the field and saw every member of the backline show off their quick hands. Five minutes after Biggar’s conversion, Matt Proctor was the beneficiary of a delightful grubber from George Furbank that flat-footed the on-rushing Irish defence. The centre collected a few metres short of the line and finished the move like a child at a water park, sliding on the wet turf with a grin stitched across his face.
The 17-0 lead was deserved. Saints were sharp and daring. Irish were plodding and ineffective. But once the visitors’ lineout spluttered into life, the tide began to turn. “We knew it was coming,” Boyd said. “But we didn’t have an ability to arrest their momentum back.”
Creevy, who hadn’t missed a line-out jumper in his previous two matches, took centre stage, hitting his mark and steering the subsequent mauls. His try before half-time was a warning shot.
The second half was dominated by Irish who also enjoyed a two-man advantage for several minutes. Api Ratuniyarawa was sent off for repeat infringements and Paul Hill was binned for illegally preventing Creevy from dotting down off a maul. There were no audible complaints when Tom Foley awarded a penalty try.
Tom Parton exploited Saints’ over-commitment in the tight channels and found space to score on the right on 64 minutes. Paddy Jackson’s conversion gave his team the lead which they looked unlikely to relinquish. But Albert Tuisue’s deliberate, albeit weak, headbutt on Alex Waller inside Irish’s 22m with five minutes to go gifted Biggar a chance to return to action with a win.
It wasn’t a blockbuster. Boyd described the game as “rubbish”. But for those who believe that rugby stands at an ideological crossroads, this narrow victory will carry greater significance.