The Saints racked up their first maximum of the New Year thanks to a four-try victory at the Gardens, but it was a far from straightforward five points against an inspired Bristol outfit.
The lead changed hands six times as a visiting side on a run of four straight wins gave the Saints a serious run for their money, the excellent Jason Woodward helping himself to 21 points in a losing effort.
But two tries in either half saw the hosts home, Travis Perkins Man of the Match Louis Picamoles followed over by Mikey Haywood, Tom Wood and JJ Hanrahan before the boots of Stephen Myler and Harry Mallinder finally wrapped up the points.
Clearly buoyed by their success of recent weeks, Bristol showed the first glimpse of danger, an important cover tackle from George North required to deny the in-form Tom Varndell in the left corner. Another chance went begging for the visitors when Woodward hooked wide a kickable chance moments later and Saints were next to threaten.
When Bristol kicked, North opted to keep ball in hand and returned fire with a powerful break over halfway and beyond. Ben Foden’s delicate grubber forced Bristol to carry back over their own line and when the Saints’ five-metre scrum demolished the visiting eight, Picamoles’ sumptuous control at the base allowed him to ground with ease.
Bristol would get themselves on the board immediately after Myler’s conversion, however, and then took the lead through Nick Fenton-Wells’ close range effort, Jack Wallace finding space in the wide channel to go close in the build up.
And they continued to have the better of things, too, Thretton Palamo gliding through when the Saints overthrew a lineout and only denied by a certain score by Foden’s strength in the last line of defence, but the lead would grow via another Woodward penalty.
The scoreboard continued to tick and when the hosts won back the restart, Alex Waller went perilously close with advantage being played. The TMO had other ideas, but the five-metre line outs persisted and another unstoppable shove carried Mikey Haywood through the pile of Bristol bodies.
Myler's conversion edged the men in black, green and gold back to the front and set piece again proved the platform for the Saints' third, that and a phenomenal pick and go from Picamoles. It was the skipper, Wood, who showed great pace to finish off his back row buddy's outstanding work that took multiple defenders out of the game.
Just as it looked as though the hosts would press on, again they were pegged back, Woodward guiding over three more points before conjuring up a fine score for himself. The full back's chip from inside his own 22 was gathered by Varndell and the flying wing fixed the final defender before releasing the Kiwi under the sticks, his conversion also taking Bristol back ahead.
In what was becoming a theme of the afternoon, the lead would last all of 90 seconds, Bristol failing to clear their lines and JJ Hanrahan charging down and pouncing to ground the bonus point score with less than an hour on the clock at the Gardens.
Again Bristol kept themselves in the game and again it was Woodward who struck from the tee to level things up.
But that was to be their final roar, a Myler penalty and Harry Mallinder's coolly taken drop goal three minutes from time edging Saints over the line and in the process securing a third Aviva Premiership win from three games either side of the New Year.
9mins BRISTOL Miss pen Woodward
14mins SAINTS Try Picamoles Con Myler 7-0
16mins BRISTOL Pen Woodward 7-3
21mins BRISTOL Try Fenton-Wells Con Woodward 7-10
29mins BRISTOL Pen Woodward 7-13
35mins SAINTS Try Haywood Con Myler 14-13
HALF-TIME SAINTS 14-13 BRISTOL
46mins SAINTS Try Wood Con Myler 21-13
50mins BRISTOL Pen Woodward 21-16
54mins BRISTOL Try and Con Woodward 21-23
56mins SAINTS Try Hanrahan 26-23
58mins BRISTOL Pen Woodward 26-26
73mins SAINTS Pen Myler 29-26
77mins SAINTS DG Mallinder 32-26
FULL-TIME SAINTS 32-26 BRISTOL
Foden; Elliott, Burrell, Hanrahan, North; Myler, Groom; A Waller, Haywood, Brookes, Lawes, Day, Wood (capt), Harrison, Picamoles
Clare, E Waller, Hill, Craig, Gibson, Dickson, Mallinder, Estelles
Woodward; Wallace, Palamo, Hurrell, Varndell; Jarvis, Cliff; Traynor, Hawkins, Ford-Robinson, Tuohy, Glynn, Fenton-Wells, Robinson (capt), Eadie
Crumpton, Bevington, Cortes, Sorenson, Lam, Williams, Searle, Arscott