Leeds Carnegie blew a 21-point lead at Franklin’s Gardens to finish bottom of the Aviva Premiership Rugby table and face probable relegation.
The West Yorkshire club's fate will not be decided for another 11 days. If Worcester win the two-legged Championship play-off against Cornish Pirates, then Leeds will drop out of English rugby's top flight as only the Warriors meet Aviva Premiership Rugby entry criteria. But should Pirates upset the odds – the second leg is at Worcester on May 18th – then Leeds will survive on a technicality and live to fight another day.
If they do make the drop, then at least Neil Back's men bowed out by making a serious scrap of it, shocking Heineken Cup finalists Northampton through early tries from England flanker Hendre Fourie, his back-row colleague Rhys Oakley and wing Pete Wackett.
Saints, needing two points to secure a title play-off place, were at sixes and sevens at 24-3 adrift before normal service was eventually resumed through scores by skipper Phil Dowson and England wing Chris Ashton either side of a penalty try. Fly-half Shane Geraghty kicked a penalty and two conversions, before his replacement Stephen Myler edged Northampton in front for the first time with a 53rd-minute penalty, and then added two later strikes.
Leeds had two players sin-binned and never came close to matching Saints' scrummaging power, and they spent most of the second-half camped deep inside their own territory. But despite making hard work of it, Saints' sealed the fourth play-off spot, with Leeds' losing bonus not enough to finish above Newcastle – who were battered at Bath – ending in 12th place on points difference.
Leeds arrived in the east midlands knowing the odds were stacked against them preserving their top-flight status, and England hooker Steve Thompson's late withdrawal hardly helped them. There was no immediate explanation for the absence of Thompson, who will join Wasps next season, as Kearnan Myall captained a team given little chance of avoiding the drop.
Saints boss Jim Mallinder made seven changes from the side that accounted for Heineken Cup semi-final opponents Perpignan in Milton Keynes last weekend, although star England backs Ashton and Ben Foden both started. And there was plenty of strength on the bench, including Dylan Hartley, Soane Tonga'uiha, Courtney Lawes, Lee Dickson and Bruce Reihana, who is set to end his nine-year stint with Saints this summer by joining French second division club Bordeaux.
But Leeds made a remarkable start, stunning Saints with two converted tries inside the opening eight minutes. Northampton were off the pace, and Leeds punished them sustained forward pressure resulted in a close-range try for Fourie, then scrum-half Scott Mathie's break and pass allowed Oakley a clear run to the line.
Adrian Jarvis slotted both conversions, and although Geraghty opened Northampton's account with an 11th-minute penalty, Leeds retained control of the contest at 14-3 ahead. There was no end in sight to Northampton's nightmare when Leeds completed an astounding opening quarter by posting their third try, helped by Foden letting a steepling kick bounce.
As Saints struggled to regroup under pressure, Leeds effortlessly moved possession wide and Wackett touched down unopposed, with Jarvis' touchline conversion making it 24-3. Saints made occasional efforts to stir, yet their frustration was underlined by a brawl involving home wing Paul Diggin and his opposite number Lee Blackett that resulted in both players being sin-binned by referee Andrew Small.
And Northampton ended the first-half like they would have expected to start it, scoring two tries in quick succession, the second after Leeds were briefly reduced to 13 players.
Dowson crossed wide out before repeated scrum pressure from the home side left Small with little option other than to yellow-card Leeds prop Juan Gomez, before his patience completely ran out and he awarded Saints a penalty try that Geraghty converted. Leeds though, still ended a madcap opening period 24-15 ahead, with their survival hopes still very much alive.
Mallinder sent on scrum-half Dickson and flanker Calum Clark for the second period, then Hartley joined the action just five minutes later, underlining Saints' escalating sense of urgency. And Northampton further reduced their deficit barely 60 seconds after Hartley's arrival as Ashton claimed his tenth Aviva Premiership Rugby try of the season following a Geraghty's searing outside break created a score that he also converted.
It brought the Saints to within two points, and worryingly for Leeds they had lost their early verve, were conceding regular penalties and lacked momentum. When Myler inched Northampton ahead, the home side were in no mood to let it slip, and although resilient Leeds never gave up the ghost, their cause was lost – unless Cornish Pirates intervene.