Monday 18 December 2017

Foden inspires Saints revival

Attention may have been lavished on the numerous new boys in the new England squad, but it was an older fixture who stood out on a cloying pitch as Northampton, whose revival in the Heineken Cup has come too late to earn them a place in the quarter-finals, turned an 11-point deficit into a comfortable winning margin.

The victory itself was far from comfortable as the Scarlets launched a succession of attacks in the final minutes when they needed a converted try to win, but if Ben Morgan had been the subject of debate in west Wales before the match after the uncapped Scarlets No 8 opted for his native England ahead of Wales, it was Ben Foden who delivered in a slow burner of a match.

The England fullback supplied the coup de grace in the final minute when he seized on a pass from the replacement scrumhalf, Rhodri Williams, close to his own line and ran 95 metres to not only seal his side's victory but deny the Scarlets a bonus point to make the Saints the more likely of the two to finish second in the group and qualify for the knockout stage of the Amlin Challenge Cup.

It capped a stand-out afternoon for Foden, whose presence seemed to so spook the Scarlets that their kicking out of hand veered from average to poor and it was the Welsh region's failure to relieve pressure, especially just after half-time, that cost them the chance of making the quarter-finals.

When the Scarlets did manage to exert pressure, they found Foden impassable. He produced a copybook tackle on George North in the opening period when Northampton were 6-0 down and had just got back to their complement of 15 men following Tom May's early yellow card for throwing the ball at Gareth Davies. North, the Wales wing, looked to have been put away down the left, but there was something diffident all afternoon about a player who commanded attention during the World Cup.

His hand-off on Foden was half-hearted, but he never seemed to run at full pace. The surface did not help, but even when he ran on grass rather than mud he tended to look around rather than ahead and was hauled down in the final quarter by May, a midfielder not renowned for his pace.

Foden made an even better tackle 10 minutes from the end when the Scarlets had momentum. A promising attack had ended when scrumhalf Davies ignored four players unmarked outside him and went for the line, only to be scragged and dispossessed by Phil Dowson, one of four England new boys involved in the game.

The Scarlets came again and worked the ball to the right wing. Priestland, who had found kicking a struggle, bought time with a delayed pass. Liam Williams had some 10 metres to go and looked to have enough space, but across came Foden and tackled him into touch. It summed up Northampton's effort: they may have been effectively out of the Heineken Cup, but they had a single-minded determination throughout and generally dictated the pace of the game.

They overcame the early loss of May, who reacted to a shove after being called back for a forward pass by throwing the ball at Davies, and conceded three points in the centre's absence when Dylan Hartley, not for the last time, infringed at the breakdown.

Iongi's try, which came from Priestland cross-kick, followed three Priestland penalties and one from Stephen Myler. The 14-3 scoreline did not reflect where the game had been played, but both sides were careless in possession and it was the way Northampton tightened up after the interval that proved the difference.

Myler's second penalty before the break gave them something to cling on to and within 10 minutes of the restart they were ahead. After Calum Clark's claim for a try had been turned down, Soane Tonga'uiha was awarded a score by the video official. Myler was kicking Northampton into position and the Scarlets started making elementary errors with Liam Williams and Iestyn Thomas culpable more than once. Morgan was struggling to make an impact, and although the Scarlets briefly claimed the lead through Priestland, the Saints quickly regained control.

Morgan did not do much with the ball in hand. One reason was Northampton's effectiveness at the breakdown where Dowson and Clark succeeded in slowing down possession. When they failed to, the Saints had Foden, a not so big Ben who called time on the Scarlets' European dream.

Scorers -- Scarlets: Iongi try, Priestland 4 pens. Northampton: Tonga'uiha, Foden try each; Myler 5 pens, con; Lamb con.

Scarlets: L Williams; G North, S Williams (G Maule 73), J Davies, V Iongi (SM Jones 58); R Priestland, G Davies (R Jones 73); I Thomas (P John 58), M Rees (K Owens 57), D Manu, L Reed, D Day (J Edwards 65), A Shingler, R McCusker (J Turnbull 73), B Morgan.

Northampton: B Foden; C Ashton, G Pisi, T May (S Armstrong 74), V Artemyev; S Myler (R Lamb 73), M Roberts (L Dickson 58); S Tonga'uiha (A Waller 70), D Hartley (M Haywood 70-73), B Mujati (P Doran Jones 58), S Manoa, M Sorenson, C Clark (B Nutley 73), P Dowson, R Wilson.


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