A spirited London Irish fight back fell short as Northampton Saints guaranteed their spot in the Aviva Premiership play-offs with a return to winning ways at Franklin’s Gardens.
Jamie Elliott grabbed a first-half double, either side of a Kahn Fotuali’i score, before Salesi Ma’afu rumbled over shortly after the interval to seal the bonus point for the hosts, who had lost their last three in the league.
But to the Exiles’ credit they came roaring back as Andy Fenby, Shane Geraghty and Jebb Sinclair all crossed the whitewash, much to the concern of the home support.
But Alex Waller calmed any nerves going over with the last play of the game and seal a victory that – with Leicester Tigers’ defeat on Friday – tightens Saints’ grip on a home play-off semi-final.
Irish made the brighter start but found Saints in an uncompromising mood in defence, George Pisi’s shuddering hit on Geraghty a sign of things to come.
George North’s first carry got Saints into the Exiles’ half and when they won a penalty at the breakdown Stephen Myler made no mistake for the first points of the game.
A clever break from Geraghty down the short side then had Saints in trouble but fine work from North in defence turned the tide and moments later the hosts had the game’s first try.
The finish from Elliott was classy but there was an element of good fortune about the build up as Fotuali’i’s box-kick was partially charged down and sat up perfectly for his winger who cut infield to slide under the posts, Myler’s conversion putting them 10-0 to the good.
The first quarter of an hour was being played at a frantic pace, Geraghty again the fulcrum for Irish when he scooped up a loose ball and hared off down the left touchline but Ben Foden’s cover forced him back inside and the chance was lost.
Irish were continually creating opportunities and then wasting them, Fenby fresh from his hat-trick last weekend was the next to break free but having made inroads down the left his offload was intercepted and again the Saints cleared their lines.
Irish were defending manfully but fortune did not smile on them and the second Saints try was as lucky as the first, the bounce of the ball after a charged down Irish clearance again sitting up perfectly, this time for Fotuali’i who raced clear for the second try.
Myler’s touchline conversion made it 17-0 to Saints after half an hour, a scoreline that was harsh on the Exiles whose impressive offloading game was still making inroads.
And worse was still to come after Foden bounced out of a tackle from his opposite man Alex Lewington and turned defence into attack with a scampering break.
Saints were on the march for a third try before the interval and when the ball was fed right a delightful Burrell offload meant Elliott was able to burrow over in the corner, Myler’s conversion again spot on for a 24-0 lead and taking him over 1000 career Premiership points.
Saints were now in the groove and it was not long after the interval before the Franklin’s Gardens crowd could celebrate the fourth try and a bonus point.
Ma’afu barrelled over from close range after Burrell’s superb initial break while North also went close for the hosts after hacking through.
Irish were defending stoutly and they deserved a try for their efforts, Fenby collecting his own grubber kick to score and reduce arrears to 29-7.
And a minute later the Exiles were right back in it, Geraghty racing the length of the pitch after an interception to go under the posts, his conversion against his former club making it 29-14.
Waller was then sent to the sin bin and when Sinclair barged over for a third Exiles try in quick succession suddenly a comeback was on the cards.
Yarde had a try ruled out for a forward pass as the Exiles continued pressing but in the game’s final play Waller crossed in the corner to seal an important victory for the hosts.