Alex Goode’s first-half try proved the difference as Saracens went top of the Aviva Premiership table with a hard-fought 16-6 win over an injury-hit Northampton Saints at Franklin’s Gardens.
England head coach Stuart Lancaster now faces an anxious wait ahead of the autumn internationals after both Courtney Lawes and Dylan Hartley limped off injured for the home side in the first half.
Saracens head coach Mark McCall opted to rest Charlie Hodgson despite his fantastic performances in the Heineken Cup over the last fortnight but Owen Farrell was faultless from the kicking tee in his absence.
The England star slotted four kicks from four for the away team to go with Goode’s opportunistic score as Saracens made it five straight wins in all competitions.
It was McCall’s troops who came out of the blocks quickest and as early as the third minute a fine break from Schalk Brits took him to within touching distance of the try line but he was penalised for not releasing and Northampton were able to clear their lines.
But the away side were still dominant and deservedly took the lead when Farrell slotted over a seventh-minute penalty after Saints were penalised for not rolling away in the tackle.
That score seemed to wake up the hosts and had it not been for Ken Pisi stepping into touch they might have been in for a try shortly after.
But Saracens had strayed offside and the play was brought back for an initial penalty, Stephen Myler making no mistake to level the scores.
Plenty of talk before the game had centred on Chris Ashton’s first return to Franklin’s Gardens and it was always going to be volatile.
Booed throughout, it took until the 20th minute for the Rugby League convert to announce himself with a shoulder charge on Vasiliy Artemyev that left the Russian flyer on the other side of the advertising hoardings.
Ashton was penalised for the tackle but battle lines had been drawn as the vocal home support and scrum-half Lee Dickson both voiced their displeasure.
The incident appeared to fire up Jim Mallinder’s troops who threatened the first try of the game soon after when Lawes collected Ryan Lamb’s chip but Sarries’ last-ditch defence kept him out.
But just when it looked like Saints were getting on top it was the away team that struck in the 25th minute.
After a swift counter-attack put Neil de Kock clear down the left, full-back Goode was on hand to collect Joel Tomkins’ offload and go over for the first try of the match, Farrell adding the extras for 10-3.
And it went from bad to worse for Saints as both Myler and Lawes limped off with injuries in the immediate aftermath, Tom May and Samu Manoa respectively replacing them.
For the rest of the first half it was Saracens who dominated, without ever really threatening a second try, as Saints appeared to have the stuffing knocked out of them.
A limping Hartley became Northampton’s third injury replacement of the match as Mike Haywood was introduced after the break in worsening weather.
Driving rain now accompanied the strong winds of the first half and it was Saints who coped best initially as Ryan Lamb slotted over his first penalty on 43 minutes to reduce Saracens’ lead to four.
But those reduced arrears did not last long as Saracens marched down the other end and won Farrell a very straightforward penalty and he made no mistake to stretch it back out to 13-6.
Saints were undoubtedly the side in the ascendancy but Saracens were a constant threat on the counter-attack and Ashton came within a whisker of a try against his former employers on the hour mark after Tomkins hacked a loose ball forward but the 25-year-old could not quite ground the ball.
Farrell remained flawless from the kicking tee and in the 68th minute he dug the knife in a little deeper with his third penalty to make it 16-6.
That final penalty denied Saints a losing bonus point as Sarries’ much-vaunted defence held firm in the closing stages for yet another narrow victory.