Northampton Saints 34 Ospreys 6: Three talking points
Three talking points as Wales wing George North runs in four tries for Aviva Premiership leaders
Four-some North defeats Ospreys
Wales wing George North showcased his world-class finishing ability as he ran in all four Northampton Saints tries: two in the first half before grabbing his second hat-trick of the season 10 minutes into the second 40, and then securing the try-scoring bonus point with a fourth try with two minutes remaining. It’s the second time this season that the former Scarlets man has gone over for three tries in a match, but this was one of his finest performances in a Saints jersey despite being switched to outside centre early in the first half after James Wilson had gone off with a head knock. His ball carrying was typically immense, averaging 10 metres for his 12 carries. It wasn’t just a case that North was in the right place at the right time to finish off moves created entirely by his team-mates, as was the case with two of this tries, but the way only someone with his athletic ability could score. Backing himself and surging through tacklers to get the ball down and, with the result already beyond doubt in the closing stages, producing a strip in the style of former team-mate Scott Williams before rampaging towards the tryline and having the awareness and ability to put in a grubber kick then win a foot race with three defenders to ground the ball. Finally settled into life playing his rugby in England, North is on fire this season, and there’s probably plenty more to come. Wales fans will be hoping their talisman hasn’t peaked too soon with Australia, Fiji, New Zealand and South Africa heading to Cardiff next month for the Dove Men Series.
Ospreys’ wings finally clipped
After seven wins in their opening seven games, a defeat was never too far away for the club written off before the season had even started. Despite their 100 per cent Guinness PRO12 record, which remains intact, the South Wales region have played down their successes and, at least to most neutral observers, none of their wins have come close to perfection – even their nine-try demolition of Edinburgh. It wasn’t the worst performance by the Ospreys this season, but they looked a shadow of the side they have been. Thrusting Jeff Hassler, the Canadian winger, into outside centre at short notice after Andrew Bishop, an experienced campaigner and integral defensive leader, was struck down by illness was a major pre-match blow. As it turned out, Hassler was unable to get on top of the move and the Saints exposed him on several occasions through their skillful backs. Points machine Dan Biggar – usually a 90+ per cent kicker – had a rare off day from the kicking tee, although he did land two penalty goals. Even Rhys Webb, the lively scrum-half, who has been at the forefront of the Ospreys attack, wasn’t as effective as he has been in the PRO12. They also lacked the ball-carrying abilities of Dan Baker, their in-form number 8, who wasn’t risked after going off with a neck injury against Benetton Treviso a week earlier. Collectively, the Ospreys weren’t at their best, and it showed against a side full of threats. The biggest disappointment for Steve Tandy and his players will be that they never looked close to keeping up with the Saints to have a chance of grabbing a losing bonus point. How they bounce back, first in the PRO12 and then in December’s double-header with Racing Metro, will determine whether they really are a force this season.
Superb Saints could be title contenders
Reigning champions Toulon may be favourites to win an historic third successive European title, but the Saints are leading the charge as the club that could match and beat them. Their detractors will point to last week’s defeat away at Racing as a reason why they won’t, but nothing a healthy dose of mitigating circumstances can’t sort out, not least how difficult it can be to win in France. Some poor decision-making, particularly at the end of the match, aided Racing’s cause. It is unlikely to happen in January when they meet again at Franklins Gardens. Jim Mallinder’s men have steamrolled their way to the top of the Aviva Premiership and don’t look like slowing down soon. Tom Wood and Calum Clark, two back-row menaces, were brutal in the loose, and even a couple of injuries, to Wilson and fellow centre Luther Burrell couldn’t stop the Saints’ relentless pressure. Outside-half Stephen Myler did his England changes no harm with a confident display, kicking 14 points, and his half-back partner Lee Dickson also had a good shift in the opening 60 minutes, but it will be North who takes all the plaudits for his tries and destructive running. Last season, the Saints won the Challenge Cup after dropping down from the Champions Cup. They haven’t added much to their core squad from then, but this year they have a favourable pool and the weapons they possess in attack and defence are already firing. There aren’t many PRO12 or Premiership clubs that can live with an on-song Saints side. If everyone is available, they certainly chance against a Toulouse or Toulon. Given they play PRO12 whipping boys Treviso twice in December, their place in the knock-out stages could be assured in time for Christmas.