Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 25 December 2014

Saints stretch unbeaten run

Alex Waller touched down for Northampton's bonus-point try
Alex Waller touched down for Northampton's bonus-point try

Scrum dominance sparked Northampton to a 39-13 bonus-point victory over Gloucester to extend their club-record unbeaten Aviva Premiership run to 13 games.

Saints climbed back to the top of the table with their five-try win, replacing Saracens who had led the standings courtesy of Friday's victory at Bath.

Ken Pisi, Calum Clark, Tom Stephenson, Alex Waller and Will Hooley scored for Northampton as they cut loose in the second half.

Henry Trinder's try and a conversion and two penalties for Freddie Burns had Gloucester level at 13-13, before Clark plundered the pivotal score just before the hour.

In a turgid contest littered with errors on both sides, Northampton's ability to keep their scrum tidy proved decisive.

When both sides sent their front-row cavalry replacements into action just before the hour, the hosts claimed immediate profit.

Clark's inevitable try after two penalty line-outs killed the visiting resistance, and, when Stephenson crossed 10 minutes later the result was sealed.

Any and all of Northampton's back-five forwards have the capability to function without fuss at second row.

The day of the identikit forward is not yet upon us, but such robust versatility sets the Saints apart from the crowd.

On off-colour days like this, that grit is invaluable, and no doubt central to their stance at the league's summit.

A hotchpotch of humdrum before the break, both teams seemed intent on affording the advantage to the other.

Gloucester were the first to bear gifts; Rob Cook and Martyn Thomas conspiring to knock on Burns' garryowen on halfway.

The loose ball broke to Pisi, lurking in what would have been an offside position had a Saints hand been laid on Burns' hoisted kick.

Gloucester's error left the Samoan centre the right side of both the law, and the Cherry and Whites' defensive line, though, and he ghosted home for the softest of opening tries.

Not to be outdone, Northampton got in on the act by laying on a try for the visitors.

Stephenson's break carried the Saints to Gloucester's 22, only for Kahn Fotuali'i to throw a wide pass straight to Trinder.

The Gloucester outside centre had missed the tackle on Stephenson that set Northampton on the attack, so it was with both relief and elation that he scampered clear for a near-immediate levelling score.

Glaring mistakes from both sides were the only constant of a debilitating first quarter, Northampton making a mockery of their league-leading status.

The hosts finally realised they had to offer more than simple motions to win this tie, though, and won three penalties in a minute, Myler blasting the third home for his first goal of the game.

Again Gloucester were quick to level, Dan Robson's neat blindside break leading to a half-break from Trinder generated by Burns carrying to the gain-line.

Burns posted a penalty to leave the scores 10-10, and so again it was back to the error-fuelled frustrations of the earlier exchanges.

As half-time drew near Northampton panicked themselves into action again, this time producing the half's highlight - a well-constructed rolling maul.

Gloucester killed the drive on their whitewash, handing Myler a chance to wrestle Saints a 13-10 half-time lead, which the sharpshooter duly snaffled.

The break did nothing to reduce the error-count, Saints wasting an early half-chance after another maul.

Somehow the teams then exchanged possession three times in a halfway-line scrap, that ended in a Gloucester penalty after a neat line-break from mobile hooker Huia Edmonds.

Burns once again levelled the scores, before the obligatory raft of replacements brought the cold solace of departure for haunted Saints full-back James Wilson, ending an error-strewn turn.

England flyer Ben Foden trod the turf for the first time since November, finally fit after knee ligament trouble.

Two revised front-rows locked horns for the first time, and Saints were the scarily conspicuous beneficiaries.

The Saints obliterated Gloucester at the scrum, blasting the visitors off their own ball with a perfectly timed counter drive.

Two penalty line-outs later, blindside flanker Clark raced off a maul and over the whitewash to cap this contest's turning point.

Saints added a third try through a routine break from Stephenson, cutting a neat line off Myler, to brush past paper-thin visiting cover.

Foden's half-break set Northampton back on the attack, with Gloucester's Will James sin-binned for killing the ball on the line after Jamie Elliott powered close.

Saints chose the line-out, exploiting their extra man up front for Waller to power home for the bonus-point try.

Hooley then grabbed a fifth try as Saints got greedy, with Gloucester heads already bowed.

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