Two tries in the final five minutes saw Bristol Bears inflict an agonising 21-28 defeat on Northampton Saints in Round 14 of the Gallagher Premiership.
Nick Isiekwe’s first-half score kept Northampton in touch following two tries in quick succession from the Bears, but the boot of James Grayson plus an impressive George Furbank try looked to be enough as Saints led by seven heading into the last ten minutes.
However, two killer blows in the closing stages snatched victory from the jaws of defeat for Bristol, with Saints instead picking up a losing bonus point at Franklin’s Gardens.
The closest either side got to opening the scoring in the first quarter came from kicks into the in-goal area. Despite Saints enjoying the best of the early exchanges, Bristol threatened when Niyi Adeolokun picked off a pass from Rory Hutchinson. The Irish wing raced off into the clear but a brilliant chase and tackle from Hutchinson forced a loose kick that went over the dead ball line.
Off the scrum that followed, it was Saints’ turn to nearly get on the end of a kick as Matt Proctor’s grubber was hunted by Tommy Freeman over the try line, but it was Ratu Naulago who won the race to prevent the grounding.
It was the visitors who opened the scoring with a try against the run of play. After pouncing on a loose lineout inside Saints territory, wide the Bears went to Alapati Leiua. His inside ball picked out the line of Henry Purdy who scythed through a gap before stepping the cover for the score, which Tiff Eden converted.
Naulago added Bristol’s second shortly after, diving over from close range once a rolling maul was held short of the line.
Saints needed a response before the break. Isiekwe offered a platform when muscling Steven Luatua into touch, while a penalty conceded by Andy Uren allowed Grayson to kick into the corner.
Saints attacked down both flanks as they took the Bears through multiple phases, before Grayson’s brilliant long pass cleared the rush defence to offer Isiekwe a clear run to the line. A well-struck touchline conversion left the score at 7-14 at the break.
Northampton came out of the sheds with plenty of intent, winning a penalty when Sam Matavesi latched in over the ball. Grayson took the shot to narrow the gap to 10-14.
Saints continued to play from deep when Alex Coles won a lineout against the head. Proctor chased a chip over the halfway line, but was impeded by Purdy. Grayson lined up another shot, drilling it from the 10m line to bring Saints to within a point.
Bristol responded by taking Saints through plenty of phases in defence, but a spill in contact offered the hosts an attack from their own 10m.
What followed was a scintillating attacking effort. Proctor set things off by breaking the gain line before offloading to Dingwall. On the next phase, Hutchinson threw a long ball wide to Freeman who, as he crossed halfway, chipped ahead into the 22.
With the backfield cover sucked up into the line, the ball sat up beautifully for the chasing Furbank to gather and score in the corner and make it 18-14.
Grayson missed the conversion but had the chance to make amends when tripped by Naulago while chasing his own kick; he made no mistake and stretched the lead out to seven points heading into the final quarter.
Saints continued to hound the Bears, with Freeman tackling Thomas into touch, while Piers Francis forced a spill from Purdy on a kick chase. An offside Jake Woolmore then played the ball, allowing replacement Harry Mallinder a chance off the tee shortly after entering the fray, but his effort just shaved the left post.
With five minutes remaining on the clock, Bristol secured the score they needed to narrow the gap – Luke Morahan going over in the corner once the Saints defence was sucked in. Sam Bedlow’s impressive touchline conversion levelled the scores.
Off the restart, Bristol snatched the result with a breakaway try. A loose ball was scooped up by Fitz Harding with acres of space in front. After crossing halfway, his inside ball to Uren sent the trailing scrum-half underneath the posts.
No further scores were added as Bristol killed out the clock inside their own half, with Saints now looking to bounce back with a trip to Sixways to take on Worcester Warriors on the horizon next weekend.