Two manic second-half minutes changed the complexion of Sunday’s clash at Franklin’s Gardens as Northampton Saints let a 14-point lead slip against Bristol Bears.
In front of a healthy crowd that braved the elements as Storm Dennis blew over, Harry Mallinder’s early score and a couple of penalties from James Grayson saw Saints open up an 11-0 half-time lead.
But despite one more place kick from Grayson after the break, Bristol struck twice in as many minutes with two big breaks from deep, meaning for the second time in as many games Chris Boyd’s charges had to settle for a losing bonus point.
Saints started well with a score inside ten minutes; Teimana Harrison – on his 150th appearance in Black, Green and Gold – earned valuable go-forward ball with two powerful carries inside the 22 before his offload sent Rory Hutchinson away.
And the Scot drew away the last defender before sending Mallinder over in the corner. The score came at a price however, as Alex Moon limped off with a knee injury immediately after.
Grayson added an extra three to the lead once Cobus Reinach got in over the ball after catching his opposite number Randall in possession behind the scrum.
The Springbok was not the only Saints defender to cause problems for the Bears at the breakdown as Harrison, Lewis Bean and Alex Waller all defended ruthlessly and got over the ball on separate occasions to halt a number of forays into the Northampton half.
Grayson punished the Bears for jumping offside to set the half-time lead at 11-0, but not before Hutchinson had to make a last-ditch tackle to force Sam Bedlow to spill possession before he could take advantage of the overlap on his outside.
Any nerves from Bristol’s pressure before the break looked to have been quickly put to bed after the restart, as Grayson opened up a 14-point lead once the Bears failed to roll away in front of their own posts.
But the Bears’ response was emphatic, with Capon’s break into the 22 ultimately leading to a yellow card for Hutchinson after a high tackle on Joe Joyce. Callum Sheedy knocked over the resulting penalty from straight in front to get the Bears on the board.
After failing to really threaten during the majority of the sin-bin period, the Bears made their numerical advantage count just before Hutchinson’s return as Henry Purdy finished off Piers O’Conor’s break in the corner, with Sheedy converting from out wide.
The momentum was with Bristol, and almost immediately after the restart they were in the lead. Another break from deep, this time from Andy Uren, quickly brought play back into the 22 before replacement Lewis Thiede dove over from close range. Sheedy capped off the score by adding the extras to send Bristol out into a three-point lead.
Saints needed a response, and they so nearly got it as replacement Fraser Dingwall’s deft pass to Ahsee Tuala put the Samoan into the 22, but fullback Mallinder couldn’t replicate his first-half finish.
That was as close as Saints came in the dying moments of the match, with Bristol’s Ian Madigan knocking over a late scrum penalty to bring the final score to 14-20.