In one of the great romantic triumphs, even by Cup standards, London Irish outran, outfought and outplayed Northampton yesterday to win the Powergen National Knock Out Competition.
The Exiles, a disparate band of merry men recruited from Ascot to Auckland to Cape Town, won the first cup final in the club's history. And how. Under the inspirational, almost fanatical, leadership of their player- coach Brendan Venter, the Irish rose to the occasion in magnificent style and thoroughly deserved their victory by five goals and a penalty to a goal. If I were a betting man, and sadly on this occasion I was, I would have put a bundle on Northampton.
They were here a couple of years ago in an even bigger final, the Heineken Cup, which they captured by beating Munster. Since then the Saints had not been marching in unison, at least not until the arrival of the former All Blacks coach Wayne Smith. Their form in the last month or so has been the best in the Premiership and while they were slipping into overdrive the Irish were involved in hard games, particularly against Bath and Harlequins, clubs who are desperate to avoid relegation.
When Northampton met the Irish at Franklin's Gardens just after Christmas, in a bitter, ill-tempered affair, several London Irish players were spitting blood, Venter metaphorically so.
On that occasion Northampton's forwards and Matt Dawson had the last word. Yesterday they were dumbstruck. Northampton, odds on with the bookmakers, were embarrassed in a one- sided first half at the end of which the Exiles led 24-0. Northampton had their opponents in trouble at the first scrum but thereafter the Irish were rampant. A Paul Sackey interception prevented a Northampton score: the first sign, of many, that the men in green had their eye in.
The Saints, on the other hand, had their heads in the clouds. When Dawson knocked on, the evergreen Chris Sheasby set off on one of his many forays into the opposition's heart, winning a penalty which Barry Everitt miscued. It was Everitt's only blemish.
It took all of 12 minutes for the Irish to trash the Northampton defence. After Nick Beal had pulled off a try-saving tackle on Justin Bishop, the Irish executed a clever move from a line-out, Venter and Bishop combining to send in Geoff Appleford in under the posts. Seven minutes later, after another Northampton knock-on, Michael Horak, Sheasby and Hentie Martens all laid seige, Horak finally reappearing to score from close range.
When Northampton had a chance to get some points on the board with a simple penalty, Venter was not content. He complained vehmently to Steve Lander, the referee replying: "I don't need you to tell me how to run the game. …