Northampton Saints were beaten by Saracens at StoneX Stadium, but snatched two crucial bonus points in the dying moments of the match to ensure Chris Boyd’s side keep their top-four destiny in their own hands heading into the final round of the Gallagher Premiership.
The men in Black, Green and Gold led by just a point at half-time despite going down to 13 men at one stage of the opening 40, with Tommy Freeman’s try and five points from the boot of Dan Biggar cancelling out three Owen Farrell penalties.
But a blitz from Saracens at the start of the second half saw them score four tries before the hour mark and pull out to an unassailable lead. Saints dug in well though and replacement Rory Hutchinson hit back before two late tries from Tom James and a sensational finish from Matt Proctor saw Northampton leave north London with two bonus points in defeat.
The result means that with any victory over Newcastle Falcons at cinch Stadium at Franklin’s Gardens on the final day of the regular Premiership season, Saints will guarantee themselves a semi-final clash.
The hosts started the clash on the front foot as Aaron Hinkley was penalised in the first minute for going in at the side 40 metres out, and Farrell pointed to the posts to make it 3-0.
Sarries won another penalty three minutes later which Elliot Daly kicked brilliantly right into the corner from an acute angle, but Courtney Lawes, Lewis Ludlam and Api Ratuniyarawa made a mess of the maul to win back possession.
Robust defensive sets from Saints repelled the north Londoners again and again as they began to build the phases and pressure, but after Alex Mitchell did well to bring down Billy Vunipola short, Northampton were penalised on their own line and Farrell kicked for 6-0.
Freeman forced an error from Nick Tompkins as the hosts’ centre dropped the ball over the line in the 16th minute, and with a 50-22 kick from George Furbank, momentum looked to be swinging Saints’ way.
However, referee Matthew Carley then brandished two quick-fire yellow cards to Alex Coles (for not retreating ten metres after Alex Goode called for a mark) and Ludlam (for making contact with the head of Farrell at a breakdown), meaning Northampton were down to 13 men.
The visitors managed this period superbly however, conceding no points in the face of plenty of pressure from Saracens, and even cut the deficit to three as Mike Haywood and Hinkley combined to win a penalty 40 metres out, which Biggar slotted.
Saints looked to have delivered a killer blow just before the break as Haywood produced a world-class pass for Freeman to scythe through a gap and finish with aplomb, although after Biggar converted, Northampton were penalised from the restart and Farrell hit straight back from the tee.
But at 10-9 behind, Saracens made a statement at the start of the second half, as Tompkins cut through a gap to win some territory and then popped up again a couple of phases later to score from a neat Farrell pass.
Paul Hill entered the action on 45 minutes, but Saints soon found themselves further behind as Rotimi Segun cut through a gap and the hosts recycled the ball quickly for Alex Lewington to score out wide.
Sarries were far slicker in attack than in the first half, and after pinning Saints into their own corner five metres out, Theo McFarland charged down Mitchell’s box kick to score the hosts’ third try in ten minutes.
Farrell converted the first two scores but saw his third attempt drift wide as the scoreboard ticked to 28-10 in Saracens’ favour.
Northampton struck back as Hutchinson – moments after coming on – collected a superb Furbank offload and scored under the posts, with Biggar making no mistake with the extras.
But McFarland restored the advantage as he picked off a Mitchell pass and streaked into the corner, producing an acrobatic finish as Fraser Dingwall chased valiantly.
Goode collected Farrell’s grubber to score next and Saints looked dead and buried, but Northampton did not quit and were rewarded with a quality try as Freeman collected Biggar’s cross-field kick, cut inside and drew the last man to feed James to score.
The scoreline was now 42-24 but Saints were not done yet, and Alex Waller’s burst set the platform for another James try under the posts to secure one bonus-point, as Biggar this time delivered the final pass.
And with the clock in the red, Proctor’s finish in the corner was every bit as impressive as McFarland’s before him, as the Kiwi back vaulted around a couple of would-be tacklers to get the ball down before he was taken into touch and round off an entertaining match with a second bonus-point for Saints.