A 19-point second-half comeback was not quite enough for Northampton Saints as London Irish edged an entertaining Premiership Rugby Cup clash 36-26.
An action-filled first 40 at cinch Stadium at Franklin’s Gardens saw the Exiles score 19 unanswered points inside 25 minutes, although George Hendy’s debut try gave Saints hope at half-time.
And thanks to a much more settled showing after the break, tries from James Fish, Josh Gillespie and Tom Litchfield had seen the men in Black, Green and Gold fight their way back into the game, but a late score from Exiles centre Benhard van Rensburg sealed victory for the visitors.
Saints started sharply and displayed plenty of attacking intent, with a succession of skilful offloads down the right-hand side displaying their intention to play at speed.
A quickly taken penalty from Saints produced the first real opportunity of the game; Northampton put the ball through the hands before Litchfield was tackled just short of the line.
However, it was Irish who crossed the whitewash first, with James Stokes scything over in the corner after the Exiles pulled off a move off the back of their scrum – and the visitors made it a quickfire double shortly after as Rory Jennings orchestrated an attack which saw Chunya Munga crash over in the left corner.
The fly-half landed one of the two conversions to make the score 12-0 after 19 minutes. Northampton were then penalised for more ill-discipline after a strong jackal from Irish, and from the resulting penalty, Hugh O'Sullivan finished off a flowing move under the posts – with Jennings’ kick making it 19-0.
However, Gillespie’s charge down the right set up a five-metre lineout, and the Northampton forwards’ endeavours then paid dividends with debutant Hendy gathering well and crossing in the 31st minute.
Despite James Grayson’s conversion, there was still time for van Rensburg to carry hard over the line from short range to hand his side a 19-point advantage at the interval.
But as the sides came out of the sheds for the second 40, Saints began to dominate and persistent attack finally led to a 55th-minute breakthrough with replacement James Fish driving over following a lineout move.
James Grayson’s conversion narrowed the gap to 12, and a sin-bin for van Rensburg with Irish persistently infringing created more space for the hosts, with Gillespie going over in the corner after Grayson looped a pass over the top.
Saints were now within a converted score heading into the final ten minutes, and they levelled things up with six minutes to play as Gillespie found Litchfield for the centre to show off his pace and burn two defenders before scoring in the corner.
James Grayson’s conversion drew the scores level, but the Exiles answered straight away with their first real opportunity of the second half – a slick move ended with van Rensburg crossing for his second of the night.
There was still time before the clock ticked into the red for Jennings to land a long-range penalty to put some gloss on the scoreline for Irish, but after a game of two halves, the young Saints side will have been encouraged by their efforts ahead of another Cup game next week at Harlequins under the Friday Night Lights.