Northampton Saints’ astonishing second-half comeback saw Chris Boyd’s side come from 15 points down in the last 20 minutes to beat Dragons and book their spot in the European Challenge Cup quarter-finals.
The men in Black, Green and Gold faced an uphill battle after a first half where they struggled to hit their stride, going into the sheds 22-10 down at the interval despite a James Grayson penalty and Taqele Naiyaravoro’s try.
Sleightholme crossed immediately after half-time and man-of-the-match Alex Mitchell also dotted down a superb solo effort, but Dragons continued to build their lead until the hour mark – when Teimana Harrison, Naiyaravoro and Tom Collins all crossed to turn a 39-24 deficit on its head.
Dragons marked their intention to play for territory early with a couple of kicks deep into Saints’ half, and after a knock-on from the visitors turned into a scrum penalty for the hosts, Sam Davies knocked over the first points of the afternoon from the kicking tee.
Ashton Hewitt then extended Dragons’ advantage with a 12th-minute try, collecting Jamie Roberts’ grubber in the left corner – with Davies slotting a touchline conversion to make it 10-0.
Grayson reduced the deficit after 24 minutes after a succession of Dragons infringements took Saints up the field, but straight from the kick-off, the hosts’ fullback Jordan Williams found some room and released Ross Moriarty – with the move taking the Welsh side all the way to the tryline before lock Matthew Screech muscled his way over.
Ollie Sleigtholme saw yellow for pulling back a man off the ball to add insult to injury for Saints, who were now 17-3 down courtesy of another Davies conversion.
Nine minutes later, Hewitt had his second as Dragons took full advantage of their extra man and exploited the space in the left corner, although this time Davies was off the mark with his conversion attempt.
But Naiyaravoro handed Saints a lifeline just before the interval as Northampton finally built some phases and the mammoth winger broke through a gap at the base of a ruck to score, with Grayson’s conversion making it 22-10 as Sleightholme re-entered the action.
And less than a minute into the second half, Saints were over again as Naiyaravoro burst through the midfield and found Mitchell, with the scrum-half’s grubber collected by Sleightholme who shrugged off two tackles to score.
Grayson added the extras from the touchline, but his opposite number Davies answered straight back with a penalty to make it 25-17, and Saints were pegged back again as both Alex Coles and JJ Tonks saw yellow following one passage of play – for a cynical breakdown infringement and a late tackle respectively.
Dragons again made their numerical advantage count as Davies scampered through off the back of a scrum, converting his own score to make it 32-17 – but with his side still down to 13 men, Mitchell’s sensational turn of pace saw him break into space and burn the last man to score in the corner.
Grayson was once again on the mark with his conversion to take the deficit back to eight points, but the clash continued to be played end-to-end and Leon Brown burrowed over for Dragons with just 19 minutes to play with Davies once again adding the conversion.
That was, however, the last points the hosts could muster as Director of Rugby Chris Boyd unloaded Saints’ bench, with the likes of Ahsee Tuala, James Fish, Alex Waller and Oisín Heffernan all making an impact in the closing stages – the latter making his debut appearance in Black, Green and Gold.
It was Tuala’s deft offload to Harrison which sent the exceptional No.8 over to kick-off Saints’ resurgence, and as the visitors piled on the pressure Elliot Dee saw yellow for constant Dragons’ infringements inside the 22.
Another replacement, Tom Collins, fired a brilliant long pass over the top for Naiyaravoro to grab his second try of the afternoon on 73 minutes, Grayson’s touchline conversion taking the score back to 39-36.
And it was Collins who grabbed the decisive score in the dying moments; Henry Taylor broke through the middle from Fraser Dingwall’s offload, and the scrum-half’s chip over the top meant the race was on for Collins, who hacked the ball forward and beat the last man for pace to touch down.
Northampton’s celebrations were put briefly on hold as they were called into defensive duties for the final couple of minutes, but a Dragons knock-on ended the content and Boyd’s side will turn their attentions to a quarter-final against either Harlequins or Ulster next weekend at Franklin’s Gardens.