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Saints 39 – 22 Bears: Victory over Bristol keeps Northampton in play-off picture

An imperious performance from Northampton Saints saw them notch up their third straight bonus-point victory in the Gallagher Premiership, beating Bristol Bears 39-22 in front of a boisterous cinch Stadium at Franklin’s Gardens.

The hosts led 24-17 after a topsy-turvy first half which saw each side score three tries apiece – Tom Collins, Rory Hutchinson and Lewis Ludlam crossing the whitewash for Saints.

But Northampton stretched their lead after the break with Tommy Freeman crashing over before Collins sealed the win with his second score of the afternoon, moving the men in Black, Green and Gold up to fifth in the league table in the process.

Freeman and Alex Waller combined to force an early turnover on Semi Radradra, with Dan Biggar then opting to kick to the corner. But as Saints set up the driving maul, Sam Matavesi was adjudged to have been held up and Bears could clear.

Bristol then opened the scoring as they went from one wing to the other, with Chris Vui, Harry Thacker and Radradra combining to send the latter over the whitewash.

Sheedy missed the conversion from left of the posts, and Saints looked to respond by putting the ball through the hands with George Furbank feeding Freeman down the right.

The youngster chipped over the top and could not quite gather it himself with the ball being cleared into touch by Bristol – and from the resulting lineout drive, Ludlam charged over but the TMO adjudged he was in touch and chalked off the score.

However, Saints were on the board shortly after with three points from the boot of Biggar, as Bristol were penalised in front of their own posts.

The hosts then thought they had taken the lead with 21 minutes played thanks to a moment of magic from Freeman, who caught Biggar’s chip over the top and grubbered through to collect himself and touch down – but the wing’s foot was just in touch as he scooped the ball up, and again Northampton were denied by the TMO.

But it was third and then fourth time lucky for Saints, who scored two quick-fire tries which were both things of beauty.

First, off a lineout, Alex Mitchell dished the ball up for Hutchinson, who swerved a defender and offloaded inside for Collins to score untouched – with Biggar’s conversion good to take the scoreline to 10-5 on 25 minutes.

It took just two more minutes for Saints to go over again, with Courtney Lawes winning a penalty on halfway for Biggar to send into touch. Fraser Dingwall then chipped in with a big carry before Hutchinson again carved through the Bears defence like a hot knife through butter to score under the posts.

A breathless few minutes before half-time followed, in which three tries were scored in seven minutes.

First Callum Sheedy scooted over in the corner for Bristol, but as soon as the visitors closed the deficit, skipper Ludlam extended it again after some neat handling put him into space, and the flanker somehow trucked through several Bears tacklers to score.

Saints however were penalised straight from the kick-off, and after a series of pick-and-go attempts from the Bristol forwards, Yann Thomas wriggled over the line to complete a rollercoaster opening 40.

Northampton lost both Api Ratuniyarawa and Furbank to head injuries either side of the interval, with the duo replaced by Alex Moon and Matt Proctor.

Biggar then extended Saints’ lead after 52 minutes with a penalty after Bears’ forwards went off their feet in front of the posts, but Northampton’s injury troubles continued as Dave Ribbans went off injured with 25 minutes to play.

But the hosts weren’t to be deterred and Freeman dashed over for the bonus-point score before the hour mark, with Dingwall delivering the killer pass to send him under the posts – and things got worse for Bristol as Radradra was yellow-carded in the aftermath for a tackle off the ball on Biggar.

Bears were soon down to 13 as Fitz Harding also sin-binned for a high hit on Dingwall, and Saints immediately took full advantage as Biggar sent the ball wide into space for Freeman to then put it on a plate for Collins to score in the corner.

Mike Haywood entered the fray on 62 minutes for his 250th Saints appearance after 63 minutes, while there was another milestone for young fullback George Hendy – who made his Premiership debut off the bench with eight minutes remaining.

Bristol did manage a bonus-point try late on after Paul Hill saw yellow for a deliberate knock-on, as some sublime handling by Luke Morahan created the space for Alapati Leiua to score in the left-hand corner – but that was no more than a consolation as far as the final scoreline was concerned.

Saints will now enjoy a weekend off before their first European knock-out match of this season in the European Challenge Cup in a fortnight.

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