Fast-starting Saints hand Bristol tough lesson on Premiership homecoming
Northampton gatecrashed Bristol's Aviva Premiership homecoming after three first-half tries set up a comfortable victory at Ashton Gate.
George North, number eight Louis Picamoles and North's fellow wing Ken Pisi all breached Bristol's defence during a dominant spell as the west country club's first Premiership home fixture since 2009 ended in a 32-10 defeat.
Saints could even afford to see their England captain Dylan Hartley go off at half-time - it was not immediately clear whether or not he had suffered an injury - and still emerge victorious, with fly-half Stephen Myler kicking two penalties and two conversions and Hartley's replacement Mike Haywood claiming a bonus point-clinching injury-time try that Harry Mallinder converted..
Bristol enjoyed a far stronger second-half performance after being brushed aside during the opening 40 minutes, with Ross McMillan touching down and fly-half Tusi Pisi adding a conversion to en earlier penalty, but life is not about to get any easier for them, as their next three games are against Wasps, Exeter and Saracens.
Bristol were without Wales international centre Gavin Henson due to a leg injury, so Ben Mosses partnered Will Hurrell in midfield and there was also a call-up for lock Ian Evans. Saints' Wales star North, meanwhile, made his first start of the season, with Myler replacing Mallinder.
And Northampton enjoyed a flying start, taking an eight-point lead in as many minutes after Myler kicked a penalty and North finished off a slick move that included an impressive defence-splitting pass from Hartley, before Tusi Pisi opened Bristol's account with an angled penalty.
Bristol, despite the optimism generated by a narrow bonus defeat against Harlequins last weekend, then conceded 17 points in six minutes as Northampton stormed clear, albeit helped by a controversial decision.
Referee Craig Maxwell-Keys needed assistance from television match official Graham Hughes before awarding Picamoles a close-range try, but Maxwell-Keys then appeared to get it horribly wrong as Ken Pisi skipped outside Tom Varndell's weak challenge and sprinted over, despite looking to have a foot in touch.
Another Myler conversion, added to an earlier penalty, meant that Saints led 25-3 and were within sight of a try-scoring bonus point as Bristol battled to cope with the demands of the Premiership following seven years out of English rugby's top flight.
Bristol had to absorb further pressure before half-time, yet Saints should have reached 30 points, but Hartley lost possession as he dived over Bristol's line following a lineout surge.
Bristol, though, had all it to do, trailing by 22 points at the interval and having shown no obvious sign of finding a way back into the contest.
Hartley did not reappear for the second period, being replaced by Haywood, before Mallinder went on for George Pisi in midfield as Saints looked to reassert their control and territorial dominance.
But Bristol struck first in the second half, capitalising on a strong run by Mosses as former Northampton forward McMillan barged over Saints' line for a try that Tusi Pisi converted to give the home side a glimmer of hope.
That was as good as it got for Bristol, though, with North going close to posting his second try before Bristol withstood late pressure until Haywood crashed over and Mallinder converted as Saints bounced back after last weekend's home defeat against Bath.