Northampton Saints brought an end to Bristol Rugby’s recent winning run after edging an entertaining Aviva Premiership Rugby clash at Franklin’s Gardens.
The Saints outscored their opponents by four tries to two but an impressive all round performance from fly-half Jason Woodward – who scored 21 of his side’s points – kept Bristol in the game with the scores level heading into the last 20 minutes.
However Stephen Myler’s penalty and Harry Mallinder’s late drop goal settled matters as the Saints won a third successive Aviva Premiership Rugby in a row for the first time since March – with tries from Louis Picamoles, Mike Haywood, Tom Wood and JJ Hanrahan earning the try bonus point.
Bristol started brightly and Varndell, chasing the record for the most Aviva Premiership tries, got his first sniff of the try line after a strong break by Woodward but he was bundled into touch five metres out before Woodward dragged a penalty wide.
After that miss, it turned out to be the Saints who got the first points of the afternoon on 13 minutes with George North setting it all up with an impressive 60 metre break up field before the hosts eventually won a scrum and Picamoles powered over after the Bristol defence crumbled.
— Northampton Saints (@SaintsRugby) January 7, 2017
Myler converted for 7-0 but Bristol were able to respond with a 16th-minute Woodward penalty to cut the deficit.
And it got better for the visitors on 20 minutes when Varndell made space before putting in Olly Robinson. He was stopped but Bristol managed to keep the ball alive with Mitch Eadie crossing from close range for his third try of the season with Woodward’s conversion making it 10-7.
Bristol’s confidence was plain to see, with Woodward opting for the posts rather than territory with his penalty on 29 minutes and duly dissected the posts on the angle from 45 metres out for 13-7.
But Northampton were proving equally dangerous in attack and piled the pressure on the Bristol try line with Alex Waller appearing to go over before the TMO ruled it out on the ground of no clear grounding over the line.
Play was brought back to an earlier penalty and Saints went again, with Mike Haywood eventually crossing the whitewash from close range on 35 minutes. Myler converted and the hosts were back in front by a point.
80″ – Time is up and that’s a valuable losing point! #NORvBRI
— Bristol Rugby (@Bristol_RFC) January 7, 2017
That was the way the score stayed heading into the break but it only took five minutes for Saints to add their third try of the afternoon as Bristol’s scrum was bullied again.
Picamoles then shrugged off several tackles before offloading to captain Wood to run in from 15 metres out with Myler’s extras making the score 21-13.
Bristol’s Varndell continued to look dangerous with ball in hand before then winning a penalty which Adrian Jarvis kicked to touch and from the resulting set piece, Bristol were able to win themselves another penalty which Woodward dispatched to bring the deficit down to five.
The fly-half was involved again just minutes later as an impressive counter attacking move from close to Bristol’s try line saw Varndell pick up on a defensive kick forward before Woodward claimed the offload to go over before then converting for 23-21.
But Saints hit back immediately to mute the celebrating Bristol fans as straight from the restart, Myler kicked deep with JJ Hanrahan charging down and catching the Bristol clearance to score on 56 minutes for the bonus point try.
The conversion was missed however and Bristol were able to draw level at 26-26 just three minutes through Woodward’s penalty.
But it was Saints who nudged ahead as they broke in numbers and won a penalty after Bristol were pinged for holding on, leaving Myler to dissect the posts with eight minutes left.
Mallinder then added a late drop goal but Bristol did manage to pick up a losing bonus point to move within a point of second-bottom Worcester Warriors.
A drop-goal from Harry Mallinder in the final five minutes seals it for Saints. pic.twitter.com/6OavNHL8zJ
— Premiership Rugby (@premrugby) January 7, 2017