Northampton brush aside London Irish with five-try display
Northampton reasserted their Aviva Premiership title credentials as they moved within two points of the play-offs with a 35-7 destruction of London Irish at Franklin's Gardens.
It was a fitting display to mark the opening of the new £6million Barwell Stand, as James Craig, Alex Waller, Jamie Elliott and Lee Dickson all crossed for tries, with a penalty try compounding Irish's misery and leaving them rooted to the bottom of the table.
The outclassed visitors trailed 21-0 at the break and only made an impression on the scoreboard three minutes from time when David Paice went over for a converted try.
Despite the wet conditions Northampton, who lost their last home match to Wasps, showed plenty of enterprise in the opening exchanges, more than they had for much of the season.
Dickson exemplified this ambition, tapping a kickable penalty on Irish's 10-metre line and when the scrum-half was stopped by Halani Aulika, the prop was shown a yellow card by referee Tim Wigglesworth.
Luther Burrell, revitalised at 13, looked particularly lively, and his left-footed diagonal grubber was almost grounded by wing James Wilson in the 16th minute, but Irish full-back Andy Fenby was there just in time to boot the ball dead.
But a minute later Northampton opened the scoring through a more familiar route as a 5m lineout drive saw lock Craig touch down for his first try of the campaign. Stephen Myler judged the wind perfectly to put Northampton 7-0 in front.
And when the home pack marched towards the line from another 5m lineout three minutes later, the referee was quick to award a penalty try as Irish brought the drive down illegally. Myler converted as Aulika returned from the sin-bin having watched his side concede 14 points.
Irish let the chance of their own 5m lineout drive slip away, but they kept the game in the home side's half to win a penalty from 45m. However, former Saint Shane Geraghty was short with his kick.
Northampton again showed their ambition by launching an attack from under their posts with Ben Foden slipping a tackle until it broke down on halfway.
But another penalty kicked to the corner by Myler allowed Saints to set up camp in Irish's 22 and, although 19-year-old centre Harry Mallinder was stopped a metre short, the ball was shifted to the right where Elliott offloaded for loosehead Waller to score the home side's third try a minute before the break. Myler converted to make it 21-0 at half-time.
Irish came out early for the second half and played like they had been given a rocket by head coach Tom Coventry.
Geraghty and Topsy Ojo almost broke through the Saints defence, but when the attack broke down the home side countered through Burrell and Wilson. The move shifted right where Dickson sent a lovely kick over the top for Elliott to run on to and shrug off Geraghty to score the fourth try.
From the restart Dickson scored his side's fifth try and Saints took full advantage of fourth-placed Harlequins' defeat at Gloucester.
Tom Wood ghosted out of a ruck on his 22, passed to Burrell, who fed Jamie Gibson and the flanker offloaded to Dickson for a superb 80m team try. Myler converted both scores to make it 35-0 after 50 minutes.
With 12 minutes remaining Saints' replacement centre JJ Hanrahan was sin-binned and team-mate Gibson followed him to the bin with four minutes left, and against 13 men, Irish finally got something to show for their efforts as hooker Paice rumbled over, with Geraghty added the extras.