Northampton Saints’ hopes of reaching the Gallagher Premiership semi-finals for a second season running took a blow as they were beaten by fellow play-off contenders London Irish.
The Exiles have now leapfrogged Saints in the table, with Phil Dowson’s men needing to overturn a three-point gap between them and their opponents in their final two games of the regular season.
The men in Black, Green & Gold had an early let-off when Irish fly-half Paddy Jackson sent what looked a straightforward penalty wide with four minutes played.
However, a succession of penalties conceded kept them pinned in their own half and it ultimately led to Exiles No.8 So’otala Fa’aso’o plunging over from inches out after a number of pick-and-goes.
Jackson added the conversion for good measure, although Fin Smith was soon able to put Saints on the board with a penalty from in front of the posts.
But being penalised at the scrum led to the visitors conceding for a second time, in the 18th minute, when Tom Pearson was able to slip through some flimsy tackling in the middle of the park to score under the posts.
Saints’ defence improved as Irish continued to dominate territorially, and once they were finally able to spend some time in the opposition half, they came away with their first try.
But not long after reducing the gap to four points, the visitors lost Davison to injury before losing Tommy Freeman to the sin bin in the 34th minute because of a deliberate knock-on.
And in the time that remained in the first half, Jackson was able to extend the Exiles’ lead to 17 – 10 with a penalty.
A crucial second half was ahead of Saints but it started in the worst possible way as Fraser Dingwall’s knock-on was seized upon by Benhard Janse van Rensburg, who released Ben Loader down the right within two minutes of the restart.
The flow of the game had not changed, unfortunately, with Joe Powell fumbling a pass from Loader that would have put him in the clear as Saints hung on with their fingertips with the hour mark approaching.
Freeman then gave them a much stronger foothold when he picked up at a ruck 45 metres out and burst clear, leaving defenders trailing in his wake for a brilliant individual score.
That was converted by Rory Hutchinson, who had taken over kicking duties after an injury to Smith, and the deficit was down to seven points with 17 minutes remaining.
Sadly, Irish tightened their grip again within four minutes as Chunya Munga barged his way over from close range after a rolling maul had been stopped just short, with Jackson adding the extras again.
The Exiles should have had a fifth try when Henry Arundell fumbled while diving over the try line after being put in the clear by Loader, but a drop goal from Jackson in the 71st minute finally put the match beyond Saints.
There was still some life left in the visitors, though, and captain Lewis Ludlam was able to crash over for an unconverted try, but a frustrating evening in west London was rounded off by Jackson kicking another penalty for the home side.
IRISH: Loader, Cinti, Van Rensburg, Jennings, Hassell-Collins, Jackson, O’Sullivan, Fischetti, Creevy, Hoskins, Ratuniyarawa, Simmons, Rogerson, Pearson, Fa’aso’o.
Replacements: Willemse, Haffar, Chawatama, Munga, Gonzalez, Cunningham-South, Powell, Arundell
SAINTS: Furbank, Ramm, Dingwall, Hutchinson, Freeman, F Smith, Mitchell, A Waller, R Smith, Davison, Ribbans, Moon, Salakaia-Loto, Ludlam, Augustus.
Replacements: Cruse, E Waller, Hill, Scott-Young, Graham, James, Litchfield, Collins