Four second-half tries saw Northampton Saints grind out a crucial win over Benetton Rugby in the penultimate round of the Heineken Champions Cup pool stages.
Tries from the returning Harry Mallinder, Henry Taylor, Francois van Wyk, Fraser Dingwall and Andy Symons ensured that Chris Boyd’s charges travel to Lyon next week still in the hunt for a quarter-final spot, courtesy of an all-important bonus point victory.
Scores from Tommaso Benvenuti and Hame Faiva meant that the Italians spent plenty of time ahead on the scoreboard, but greater accuracy in the final quarter was enough for Saints to wrestle their way back and come away with the five points.
In a stop-start opening quarter that saw both front rows make inroads at scrum time, it was a set-piece in the 22 that allowed Saints to draw first blood. Deft handling from Rory Hutchinson and then James Grayson put man-of-the-match Taqele Naiyaravoro through a gap – and in his first game back in over a year, Harry Mallinder was on hand to take the pass and score in the corner.
But that was as good as it got for Saints in terms of turning pressure into points in the opening period. Time and again Benetton were forced onto the back-foot with Grayson and Hutchinson creating plenty of gaps in the defence, but a series of handling errors and lineout turnovers prevented Saints from adding to their lead.
The pressure led to Charly Trussardi being sent to the bin for the visitors, but Saints couldn’t make the numerical advantage count as tries from Sleightholme and Naiyaravoro were chalked off for forward passes.
Benetton on the other hand took full advantage of their only two chances for points. A Tommaso Allan penalty for an infringement at the scrum, alongside a 50-metre interception from Benvenuti had the Italian outfit five points to the good at the break.
Saints needed a spark, and that’s exactly what they got from Hutchinson and Dingwall immediately after the restart. Both centres produced one-handed offloads inside the 22 before Henry Taylor crashed over for a much-needed score. A nervous wait followed as the TMO checked for a knock-on from Dingwall, but once the try was confirmed, Grayson’s conversion put Saints back out into the lead.
This wasn’t for long though as a catch and drive inside the 22 resulted in Faiva burrowing over for the visitors. Allan’s conversion restored the five-point deficit.
Saints needed another big response, and once again it came in the form of a try. Sleightholme’s hard angle off his wing had the Benetton defence scrambling and once the ball was recycled quickly, Francois van Wyk took advantage of the overlap to score out wide.
But when Lewis Ludlam was too slow to roll away for referee Brousset’s liking, Allan was given an easy opportunity in front of the posts and the lead changed hands once more.
Cobus Reinach injected plenty of impetus off the bench and it was his jinking run into the 22 that ensured that Saints again responded well to falling behind. A series of phases close to the line ended with Naiyaravoro barrelling his way over in the corner, but not for the first time in the match, an error in the build-up cost the big Fijian his score.
Advantage for offside was being played and Saints had no hesitation in opting for a five-metre scrum. Dingwall took a hard line off of Reinach’s pass from the base and Saints finally had the all-important bonus point try.
Andy Symons put the result beyond doubt with a powerful carry from close range after Reinach had earned another five-metre scrum by forcing Pettinelli to ground over his own line.
Attentions now shift to next week’s trip to Lyon for the men in Black, Green and Gold, where another bonus-point win will have Saints firmly in the mix for quarter-final qualification.