Ten blistering minutes straight after the interval from Northampton Saints proved to be the key, as the hosts prevailed against a resilient London Irish in a thrilling encounter at Franklin’s Gardens.
The Exiles, bottom-of-the-table heading into this Aviva Premiership clash, belied their league position to score twice despite plenty of Saints pressure in the opening period, and led 14-3 at the interval.
But the Saints coaches’ half-time team talk clearly did the trick as Northampton were a different side upon the resumption, proving unplayable as George North, Rob Horne and Mikey Haywood crossed to preserve their home form – making it four wins on the bounce at the Gardens in 2018.
The victory sees Saints close the gap on Harlequins as the quest for a top-six finish continues.
— Northampton Saints (@SaintsRugby) February 17, 2018
London Irish opened strongly, and managed to break the deadlock after six minutes as a spilled pass by Saints was latched onto by Alex Lewington, who showed off his footballing skills down the right flank to pick up the first score.
Northampton then piled the pressure on the Reading-based side, but despite numerous phases in the Irish 22, the hosts couldn’t get past the determined defence and over the line.
But Saints’ attack refused to let up, with players sinking to their knees after another brutal 20-plus phases of play – with still no points to show for their attacking efforts.
And Northampton were punished for a lack of ruthlessness when Lewington scored the second try of the afternoon for London Irish, beating North to a bouncing ball following a punt across the whitewash, giving them a 14-0 lead after just 25 minutes.
The first points for Northampton came from the boot of Piers Francis, who struck a penalty from well over 40 metres out to get on the scoreboard for the home side.
Despite Irish earning a five-metre line out on the stroke of the interval, skipper Christian Day ruled the skies and stole the ball, with Francis’ kick to the back of the Tetley’s Stand closing out a frustrating half.
But the Northampton retaliation was instant; North kick-started the comeback with a try inside the first minute of the second half after a blitzing run stunned the Irish defence, Francis’ touchline conversion closing the gap to just four points.
Only four minutes later Horne crossed in the corner for his fifth try in Black, Green and Gold, as Saints tore through London Irish with quick offloading proving lethal.
Haywood was next to cross the line, as two mauls sent the Irish players back over half the pitch, nd the third was shoved over the whitewash to the right of the posts – Saints had produced the most stunning of comebacks, with three tries in eight second-half minutes putting the score at 22-14.
Saints fought hard in pursuit of their bonus-point try, but the Irish defence was resolute and did well to keep the play out of their own half.
The Exiles were still in touch heading into the final ten minutes, but Francis extended Saints’ lead with a brilliantly-executed drop-goal from 25 metres out to put his side eight points clear with as many minutes to play – prompting a huge cheers from the 13,108 in attendance.
And while Irish fought to the death for a late try, their efforts weren’t enough and Northampton’s winning streak at home in 2018 continued.
SAINTS: Tuala; North, Horne, Burrell, Foden; Francis, Groom; Ma’afu, Haywood, Brookes, Ratuniyarawa, Day (capt), Gibson, Brüssow, Harrison
Replacements: Marshall, van Wyk, Ford-Robinson, Ribbans, Wood, Reinach, Myler, Tuitavake
IRISH: Marshall, Cokanasiga, Fowlie, McLean, Lewington; Tonks, van Zyl; Franks, Paice, Hoskins, van der Merwe (capt), Paulo, Botha, Northcote-Green, Treviranus
Replacements: Porecki, Elrington, Du Plessis, de Chaves, Gilsenan, Steele, Bell, Tikoirotuma
7’ IRISH Try Lewington, Conversion Tonks 0-7
25’ IRISH Try Lewington, Conversion Tonks 0-14
28’ SAINTS Penalty Francis 3-14
HALF-TIME Saints 3-14 Irish
41’ SAINTS Try North, Conversion Francis 10-14
45’ SAINTS Try Horne 15-14
49’ SAINTS Try Haywood, Conversion Francis 22-14
57’ IRISH Penalty Tonks 22-17
72’ SAINTS Drop-goal Francis 25-17
FULL TIME Saints 25-17 Irish