Gloucester moved to within touching distance of an Aviva Premiership Rugby play-off place after consolidating third place in the table with a 27-15 victory over rivals Northampton.
Two more points from their remaining fixtures – away to Saracens next Sunday and on home soil against lowly Sale Sharks next month – will guarantee a shot at the title. Northampton should join them in Aviva Premiership Rugby's knockout phase, especially with a final game looming against relegation-haunted Leeds Carnegie, but they were second-best at Kingsholm.
First-half tries by Gloucester backs Tim Molenaar and Charlie Sharples set the tone, and there was no way back for Heineken Cup semi-finalists Northampton when hooker Olivier Azam touched down midway through the third quarter. Freddie Burns converted all three tries and added two penalties, while Saints replied with an early Alex Waller score, a Lee Dickson consolation try and five points from Shane Geraghty.
Northampton arrived in the west country one point behind Gloucester, yet rugby director Jim Mallinder fielded just two survivors from last Friday's victory over Newcastle – Bruce Reihana and Calum Clark. Clark captained the Saints but there was plenty of power in reserve, with England trio Ben Foden, Dylan Hartley and Courtney Lawes all on bench duty.
By the time Mallinder started utilising his replacements though, Gloucester were 19 points clear and on the way towards preserving a 100 per cent Aviva Premiership Rugby home record this term. And despite scrum-half Dickson's score causing a few nervous flutters in the Gloucester ranks, they retained sufficient defensive organisation to deny their opponents a losing bonus point.
Saints now head to fifth-placed London Irish on Saturday, when another defeat – even allowing for Leeds' May 7th Franklin's Gardens visit – could rock their play-off beliefs.
Gloucester boss Bryan Redpath also rang the changes, including a front-row switch en bloc as Azam, Nick Wood and Paul Doran-Jones started, while lock Dave Attwood and skipper Luke Narraway returned following a remarkable 41-41 draw against leaders Leicester last time out.
The game began in explosive fashion, with France international Azam twice involved in flare-ups. And although he escaped with only a warning from referee Wayne Barnes, television replays clearly showed Azam running into a melee and butting his former Gloucester team-mate, Saints lock Adam Eustace.
Saints though, retained their composure and they went ahead when Geraghty found Waller with a pinpoint pass and he rumbled over the line from close range. Gloucester needed a quick response, and they found it just three minutes later through a textbook try.
Quick ball off the top of a lineout saw Rory Lawson find his half-back partner Nicky Robinson, before Molenaar split Northampton's defence asunder from 40 metres out, rounding Saints wing Scott Armstrong and touching down. Burns converted to nudge Gloucester ahead, and then the full-back's short-range penalty left Northampton 10-5 adrift following an often fractious opening quarter.
Geraghty's opening penalty briefly cut the arrears, but Gloucester soon added a second try when Sharples showcased his blistering pace to leave a retreating Reihana floundering. Burns converted from the touchline, and although Robinson limped off with a leg injury – Tom Voyce replaced him and Burns switched to fly-half – Gloucester pushed for another touchdown before the break.
It did not materialise, yet a 17-8 advantage accurately reflected Gloucester's dominance and left Saints facing a testing second 40 minutes. Mallinder resisted the temptation to make any half-time changes – a surprise, given the power of his bench – and 10 further Gloucester points in 11 minutes via a Burns penalty and Azam's try finished Northampton off.
Hartley, together with props Soane Tonga'uhia and Brian Mujati, made a 54th-minute entry, and it was the cue for sustained Northampton pressure. But Saints met their match in attempting to batter down a magnificent Gloucester defence. They might have leaked five tries at Leicester three days ago, yet there was never the remotest danger of a repeat performance.
In terms of territory, the final quarter belonged to Northampton, but Tonga'uiha dropped the ball when he dived over Gloucester's line 90 seconds from time and Saints went home empty-handed.