London Irish 30 Northampton Saints 18: Tom Vickers' review and player ratings

James Grayson came agonisingly close to scoring an acrobatic try during the second half (picture: Paul Ostermeyer)James Grayson came agonisingly close to scoring an acrobatic try during the second half (picture: Paul Ostermeyer)
James Grayson came agonisingly close to scoring an acrobatic try during the second half (picture: Paul Ostermeyer)
It feels like a tale as old as time: the one of Saints and the set piece.

At Leicester Tigers a couple of weeks ago, with very different personnel, Saints stood up to the champions of England and matched their physicality.

They refused to be overawed at scrum time and when the pressure came on at the lineout.

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But 13 days later, their much-changed side were hit by blow after blow by the London Irish forwards.

And eventually, the hosts hammered home their set-piece superiority.

The story for this Saints squad is that if they can at least gain parity up front, they can win matches.

It has been the case ever since they adjusted their style to a more expansive and attacking brand of rugby.

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Give the backs chances in dangerous areas and they can create.

Just take the two bits of brilliance from James Grayson as an example of that on Friday night as he produced a lovely crossfield kick for Ollie Sleightholme to finish superbly before unlocking the door with a cutting inside pass for Tom Litchfield to write his name on the scoresheet.

In Grayson, Sleightholme, Rory Hutchinson, Courtnall Skosan and Co, Saints had a backline that was full of threat.

But Irish didn't face enough of it in truly dangerous positions as they were allowed to escape.

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Saints lost key lineouts at key times and conceded penalties at the scrum, allowing their hosts to relieve the pressure just when it looked like the black, green and gold would take control.

Irish didn't threaten too consistently, but they took their chances when they came, including converting a lineout position as Saints splintered in defence of the drive.

It made for a second agonising outing at the Gtech Community Stadium this season, following September's gut-wrenching 28-26 pool-stage loss that came via a last-gasp penalty try.

In both matches, Saints had chances get in the ascendancy and stay there, but they weren't ruthless enough.

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And they have paid the price, first by being sent on the road in the semi-final, and then by losing in it.

A couple of these players may have played their final game for the club due to their contractual situations, and it wasn't the way they would have wanted to sign off if that is to be the case.

But for the ones who are sticking around, the lesson is clear: find a way to fight fire with fire up front or find yourself out of the running for silverware.

How they rated…

TOM COLLINS - tried to use his footwork to wriggle free but Irish largely dealt with his threat from deep well. Made one key intervention to stop James Stokes scoring during the first half... 6

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OLLIE SLEIGHTHOLME - doesn't have much luck with injury, and just as he is back playing well, he is now having to deal with concussion. Scored in this game with a fine finish but had to come off before the break... 6.5

RORY HUTCHINSON - his defence was very impressive here, but Saints' regret will be that they couldn't get him in dangerous attacking areas enough... 6.5

TOM LITCHFIELD - grabbed a try as he showed good awareness to latch on to a James Grayson pass, but he saw a clearance charged down that led to a try and couldn't gather another Grayson assist later on... 6

COURTNALL SKOSAN - couldn't really have any impact on this game as he was rarely able to get involved in attack... 5.5

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JAMES GRAYSON - CHRON STAR MAN - the fact this was his first Saints game since October made it all the more impressive. Two fine try assists, some excellent kicking and some good scrambling... 8

CALLUM BRALEY - a steady enough showing from the skipper, who would have hoped for more chances to threaten in the Irish 22... 6

ETHAN WALLER - carried well when he got the chance but he was given a tough time in the scrum by Lovejoy Chawatama... 5

TOM CRUSE - a steady enough debut from the hooker but Saints had their work cut out up front on this occasion... 5.5

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ALFIE PETCH - was up against an experienced operator in Facundo Gigena and will have learned from this... 5

BRANDON NANSEN - offered what he always offers as he produced plenty of physicality, but Irish refused to be pushed back... 6

ALEX COLES - Saints would have hoped their England ace could really influence their performance, but Irish stood up to him well... 5.5

KARL WILKINS - his Saints career has been hampered by injury and he wasn't really able to stamp his mark on this match... 5.5

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AARON HINKLEY - another all-action showing from the indefatigable flanker, who fully deserves that seven shirt right now... 7

SAM GRAHAM - found himself on the wrong side of the referee during the first half but kept battling and battling with little reward... 6

Replacements (who played more than 20 minutes)

GEORGE HENDY (for Sleightholme 39) - showed some good physicality with ball in hand but one pass out of play and a clearance kick that was charged down showed he needed a little more composure... 5

DANNY HOBBS-AWOYEMI (for Waller 53) - made one good turnover but, like Saints' other props, had a tough time at the scrum... 5

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EHREN PAINTER (for Petch 53) - Saints would have hoped the prop could help to steady the ship at scrum time, but he wasn't able to dominate as he would have liked... 5

TOM JAMES (for Braley 53) - looked sharp enough as he sought to continue the form he showed against Leicester, but got little good ball... 6