James Simpson-Daniel struck late in the game to get Gloucester out of jail and pile on the agony for GUINNESS PREMIERSHIP strugglers Northampton at Franklin’s Gardens.
The Saints were on their way to a morale-boosting second successive victory thanks to an early try from hooker Dylan Hartley and a dogged forward effort against an error-prone visiting side.
But Simpson-Daniel slid over on the left to level the scores nine minutes from time and replacement fly-half Willie Walker added a nerveless touchline conversion to complete the escape act.
The agonising defeat – coupled with a win for Worcester – leaves Northampton perilously close to the bottom of the table – and ruing their inability to cash in on their long spells of first-half dominance.
After a famous win at Leicester, the Saints appeared to be within touching distance of safety with bottom side Worcester running out of games.
Their victory at Welford Road persuaded coach Paul Grayson to stick with Stephen Myler at fly-half – with fit-again Carlos Spencer at full-back and Bruce Reihana shifting to the wing in the absence of Sean Lamont.
But teams have to work hard to overcome Gloucester – beaten only four times in the league, three of those with the last kick of the game.
Their most recent defeat, 33-19 loss to Worcester, had wider implications for coach Dean Ryan, handed a 13-week touchline ban by the RFU for his subsequent criticism of referee Rob Debney.
Despite their coach’s exile, Gloucester were able to welcome back Mike Tindall from England duty, Iain Balshaw from a hamstring injury and hand a debut to former Bradford Bulls rugby league wing Karl Pryce.
But for all the big name backs on show, a waterlogged pitch meant the game turned into a forward battle, with Northampton the superior force in the opening half hour.
Former rugby league star Myler pinned Gloucester back with an impressive range of kicking – tormenting Balshaw in particular – and the Saints’ forwards picked and drove their way deep into opposition territory.
David Gerard’s lineout catch led to Hartley being shoved over the line from close range in the fifth minute and the visitors were struggling to get out of their own half.
They did so only when Peter Richards made a couple of weaving breaks while Pryce broke a handful of tackles with his only decent piece of possession.
Northampton, though, could not turn the advantage into any more points in an increasingly scrappy game, missing touch in the corner with one late penalty two minutes before the break and then seeing Spencer boot the ball out on the full.
Gloucester were much livelier after the break but still unable to take their chances with Ryan Lamb unable to find any supporting runners after one break and Balshaw denied the chance to put replacement James Bailey into the corner by a superb saving tackle from Mark Robinson.
They created another significant spell of pressure on the hour when two lineout drives were followed by an attack on the left that saw Lamb and Anthony Allen go close before spilling the ball.
But the try finally came nine minutes from time when Northampton failed to find space with a clearing kick.
Tindall retrieved the ball and Allen broke a tackle down the left before putting Simpson-Daniel away for a 20-metre dash to the line.
Watson, just on for Lamb, stepped up to stroke over an invaluable conversion from the touchline and the visitors controlled the remainder of the game to leave Northampton’s players and supporters digesting the implications of a hugely disappointing result.