A youthful Northampton Saints side were defeated at the hands of a powerful Bristol Bears at Ashton Gate.
Replacement Josh Gillespie scored moments into his Premiership debut for the men in Black, Green and Gold early in the second-half with the score at 21-10, but after two injuries to Northampton’s looseheads, Saints were forced to play with 14 men as the hosts turned up the pressure.
With only three games of the Gallagher Premiership season to play, a top-four finish is now out of sight for Chris Boyd’s men with the focus now shifting to the derby clash against Leicester Tigers this weekend and the Champions Cup encounter with Exeter seven days later.
Boyd had once again rung the changes before the match, naming an entirely new starting XV from Saints’ defeat by league leaders Exeter Chiefs last time out. Meanwhile Bristol had made nine changes after their win at Worcester on Friday, with captain Siale Piutau missing out after being banned.
The home side made their attacking intent clear right from the first whistle, with Fijian superstar Semi Radradra dinking through a grubber kick for full-back Charles Piutau to chase and touch down. It was a brilliant piece of skill by the Tongan, but ultimately in vain as his effort was ruled out by the TMO for going into touch.
But the Bears struck back soon after with three first-half tries. The first saw hooker Harry Thacker dive over after the home side launched a driving maul from five metres out.
Then with 14 minutes gone, Alapati Leiua touched down the home side’s second. Once again Bristol found themselves with lineout ball from five metres, and after pressuring the visitors line, fullbank Piutau flung the ball wide for the Samoan centre to dot down.
Bristol’s third was the pick of the bunch; from a lineout on halfway, Thacker found Ben Earl on an outside arc. The flanker sliced through Saints’ defence offloading to prop Andy Uren to dive over, which Sheedy converted to take the score to 21-3 at the break.
The second half started brightly for Saints and despite plenty of territorial dominance and numerous phases from short range, Bristol’s defence held firm and some strong foraging at the breakdown from Earl won an important turnover to relieve that pressure.
Things got a lot harder however for Northampton as prop Nick Auterac hobbled off, having already replaced the injured Danny Hobbs-Awoyemi, meaning the game went to uncontested scrums and Saints were down to 14 men.
Saints briefly remained in the ascendency and were eventually rewarded with a try of their own through Premiership debutant Gillespie. The wing sprinted on to a Grayson grubber-kick to touch down in the corner, which the fly-half converted to move the visitors back into contention at 21-10.
But the visitors, with a man deficit, were on the back foot straight from the kick-off and not long after Chris Vui went over for Bristol’s fourth after wing Luke Morahan offloaded to the flanker, who had found himself with some space out wide.
With a quarter of an hour to go, Bristol added a fifth through man-of-the match Earl – the try moving the score to 35-10 and ending the contest – and then notched a sixth two minutes later thank to Piers O’Connor.
Morahan scored a seventh to round off a difficult night for Saints, who turn their attention to the East Midlands Derby on Sunday with a victory desperately needed to give the men in Black, Green and Gold some momentum heading into the quarter-final of the Champions Cup.