Director of Rugby Chris Boyd admitted his Northampton Saints side are now in a battle to end this season on a high note, but backed the character of his squad ahead of Sunday’s East Midlands Derby.
The men in Black, Green and Gold sent a young squad down to Ashton Gate on Tuesday evening to face Bristol Bears, and were beaten 47-10 by the title contenders – although the scoreline was far closer before Saints were forced to play with 14 men midway through the second half, following injuries to loosehead props Danny Hobbs-Awoyemi and Nick Auterac.
A score for 19-year-old Josh Gillespie on his league debut was the highlight for Saints, but Bristol went through the gears in the closing stages as the visitors’ defence tired a man short.
Boyd is now looking to pick his troops up for a crunch clash against Leicester Tigers on Sunday, but commended the effort shown by a young matchday 23 in the West Country.
“We came to Bristol with a sprinkling of first stringers, but it was mainly a development side, so it told us some things – both good and bad,” he said.
“At the end of the day, it took us too long to get to ten points just after half-time when we had six, seven or eight cracks inside their 22, but we got there in the end. At 21-10 maybe we had a chance, but then we lost both of our loosehead props and go down to 14 men.
“We also had to get a couple of guys off that we needed to protect for minutes, and that meant we were pretty inexperienced, under the pump and with 14 men.
“They scored four pretty decent tries, but having said that we dropped off some tackles and made some poor reads – so again you go back and have a look at the tape with these young guys so they can learn.
“We know the performance wasn't quite as good as it has been the last couple of weeks, but our young guys still tried extremely hard.”Chris Boyd, Director of Rugby
“I don't know if we were in awe perhaps of some of the individuals in their team, but we tended to sit back on our heels and wait for them to come to us, rather than going to close time and space down.
“It’s a pretty big lesson; I think young Josh Gillespie, the first tackle he had to make was on Semi Radradra steaming 100 miles an hour at him, so that’s a pretty tough intro on your Premiership debut.”
Saints – who will still be desperate for a top-six finish despite the play-offs now being beyond them – must pick themselves up for one of the biggest matches of the season on Sunday as they travel to Welford Road to face bitter local rivals Leicester Tigers.
Northampton are unbeaten in three matches at the famous old ground, and are going for a league double over their old adversaries which would restore some much-needed momentum ahead of their European quarter-final against Exeter Chiefs.
Boyd added: “We have to find a way, we have to regroup. It’s tough to get home well after midnight on a Tuesday, and then play again on Sunday.
“We’ll need to get some training done the next couple of days and prepare for that game against Leicester, then a week after that we've obviously got a tough ask with Exeter in the European quarter-final.
“So, you know, we're down – but we're not out. We’ve managed the minutes our guys have played well, so we’ve got that under control, but some people won’t be able to play 80 minutes on Sunday.
“Four or five guys will need to back up for what will be another important Derby match for us.”