Northampton Saints maintained their winning start to the new Gallagher Premiership season, but did not have things all their own way in a 23-21 victory over London Irish.
The hosts raced into a 17-7 lead at half-time in front of a large cinch Stadium at Franklin’s Gardens crowd, with Tom Collins and Matt Proctor scoring tries, plus seven points from the boot of Dan Biggar.
However, two yellow cards early in the second half for Api Ratuniyarawa and Paul Hill helped the Exiles claw back the deficit and eventually take a narrow lead – but Biggar landed a late penalty to ensure Saints’ claimed a third win from three matches of the new league season.
Despite the torrential rain, the hosts started brightly with Alex Coles – drafted in as a late replacement for the unwell David Ribbans – grabbing an early lineout turnover, which led to a penalty in front of the sticks for Biggar to make it 3-0.
Shortly after Saints turned down a shot at goal to send a penalty into the corner, but although the rolling maul was well set, after referee instructed Northampton to use it, the wet ball squirted out of Fraser Dingwall’s grasp five metres out.
The men in Black, Green and Gold were not to be denied though as, after another Biggar penalty into the corner, Coles claimed the lineout and Saints went through the phases to create the space for Collins to score in the left corner – Dingwall providing the assist.
Biggar’s conversion from the touchline was perfect, and Northampton did not have to wait long for their second try of the afternoon. With 16 minutes on the clock, Ratuniyarawa gained some momentum with a bust up the middle, and George Furbank’s brilliant touch through found Proctor, who gratefully scooped up the ball as he dived over the whitewash to score.
Biggar added the two points once again to make it 17-0, but in the second quarter of the game Irish began to get a foothold with a lot more territory.
The Exiles eventually made their pressure count, kicking to the corner after Saints were penalised on halfway for a block, and after a series of drives from short range, Agustín Creevy eventually burrowed over under the posts. Paddy Jackson’s made no mistake with the routine conversion, bringing the deficit back to ten points at the interval.
London Irish stayed in the ascendancy at the start of the second half, and as the penalties mounted, Ratuniyarawa then Hill both saw yellow – with the latter also conceding a penalty try as he changed his bind in a maul with the visitors set to score.
A dogged defensive effort from Saints saw them weather the storm with 13 men, returning to a full contingent of players just as Collins won a crucial breakdown penalty in front of his own posts.
Teimana Harrison, fresh off the bench, was felled by a high tackle on 59 minutes, giving Biggar the opportunity to add three crucial points from the tee – Northampton’s first points for 40 minutes.
But London Irish took a slender 21-20 lead after Ollie Hassell-Collins found a gap following a lineout drive, before giving the ball to Tom Parton for the score, with Jackson again landing the conversion.
However Saints rallied again, with replacement Courtney Lawes winning a vital penalty over the ball inside his own half to advance the hosts up the pitch. Albert Tuisue was then penalised for foul play after an off-ball scrap with Alex Waller, giving Biggar the opportunity to put Northampton back in front.
There was still time for some late drama; Jackson’s drop-goal attempt with the clock in the red was blocked, and the TMO stepped in to check a potential no-arms tackle from Lawes in the build-up – but referee Tom Foley saw no foul play, and the game was over.
Next up for Saints is a trip to face Wasps at the Coventry Building Society Arena next Sunday, where they will look to keep their winning run intact.