After all the hype a new era began at Franklin’s Gardens on Saturday, but in Alan Gaffney’s first game at the helm it was Northampton Saints’ old guard that delivered a thrilling 22-19 victory over Gloucester.
The visitors led at the interval despite Ken Pisi’s opening try, as both a penalty score and James Hanson’s try put them 14-8 ahead – and when John Afoa crossed the whitewash early in the second half, the writing looked on the wall for the Saints.
But a thrilling comeback was sparked by Nic Groom’s touchdown, as Saints were then dramatically awarded a last-gasp penalty try, with Teimana Harrison delivering a man-of-the-match performance in the Northampton No.8 jersey.
The hosts were fortunate not to go behind early on as Courtney Lawes pulled a man down in the lineout, but Owen Williams pulled his kick wide from the resulting penalty.
And as Saints composed themselves and defended well, their hard work was soon rewarded as Pisi opened the scoring in the right corner as a well-worked move breached the Cherry & Whites’ defence and the Samoan finished with aplomb.
Gloucester’s retaliation was instant however; they won a penalty try just minutes later as they drove a rolling maul towards the try-line all the way from the 22, and Api Ratuniyarawa saw himself end up in the sin bin.
But with just 14 men on the field the Saints played heroically, actually reclaiming the lead with a Harry Mallinder penalty before Ratuniyarawa returned to the field.
Gloucester however were soon back in front as David Halaifonua produced a powerful surge down the left and Hanson burrowed over from close range, Williams converting his second attempt at goal to put his side 8-14 ahead as half-time approached.
Saints instantly challenged for their second try at the start of the second half, only to come just metres shy, but Gloucester struggled to break through at the opposite end as well.
And it was the visitors who managed to claim the next score, with Afoa taking on Williams’ offload to break clear and send his side 11 points clear – Williams just pulling the conversion attempt wide left.
Northampton’s response was impressive however; Pisi challenged brilliantly in the air off the kick-off and just a few phases later Groom sniped over – his fourth try of the season – to close the gap at 19-15 and set up a grandstand finish.
That score supercharged a bumper Franklin’s Gardens crowd and it was end-to-end stuff from then on, with possession rocking back and forward, and both sides going hell for leather for a decisive score.
And when Henry Trinder was penalised for offside, Mallinder kicked the crucial penalty into the corner with just two minutes remaining, and it took the TMO to make the decision when Saints forced the rolling maul over the line.
In the end Ian Tempest awarded a penalty try to give Saints a 22-19 win to end their losing run and kick off 2018 with a sensational win.
SAINTS: Tuala; Foden, Horne, Burrell, Pisi; Mallinder, Groom; Ma’afu, Hartley (capt), Ford-Robinson, Ratuniyarawa, Lawes, Wood, Gibson, Harrison
Replacements: Haywood, van Wyk, Brookes, Paterson, Nutley, Reinach, Grayson, Stephenson
GLOUCESTER: Marshall; Woodward, Trinder, Symons, Halaifonua; Williams, Heinz (capt); Hohneck, Hanson, Afoa, Slater, Galarza, Ackermann, Polledri, Morgan
Replacements: Matu’u, Orr, Balmain, Savage, Ludlow, Vellacott, Twelvetrees, Sharples
13’ SAINTS Try Pisi 5-0
15’ GLOUCESTER Penalty Try 5-7
26’ SAINTS Penalty Mallinder 8-7
32’ GLOUCESTER Try Hohneck, Conversion Williams 8-14
HALF-TIME Saints 8-14 Gloucester
54’ GLOUCESTER Try Afoa 8-19
57’ SAINTS Try Groom, Conversion Mallinder 15-19
80’ SAINTS Penalty Try 22-19
FULL-TIME Saints 22-19 Gloucester