Northampton all but sealed their Aviva Premiership Rugby play-off spot with a 26-20 win over London Irish at the Madejski Stadium.
There was very little between the teams, but two tries from Chris Ashton and 16 points from Stephen Myler made Irish pay for crucial unforced errors and ill-discipline.
The home side had the first opportunity to score but Tom Homer’s penalty attempt from inside his own half sailed narrowly wide. After nine minutes the Saints had their first chance but Myler was unable to capitalise, pushing his 40-metre kick wide.
However, that was the precursor for the Saints to produce the first sustained period of pressure of the match. Paul Diggin and Soane Tonga’uiha both went close, but stern defence by the Irish kept their line intact.
After 20 minutes Northampton took the lead. Bob Casey carelessly lost the ball in the tackle in the visitors’ 22, the Saints swiftly counter attacked and a clever pass from Jon Clarke sent Ashton away to outpace the cover on a 50-metre run to the line. Myler converted with an excellent kick from the touchline.
After 27 minutes Homer was presented with another difficult penalty chance, but this time he was on target to reduce the arrears and soon added another from 30 metres. Myler kicked a penalty for Northampton before another long-range attempt from Homer rebounded back off a post and that miss proved costly as Myler kicked his second penalty to give the Saints a 13-6 interval lead.
Early in the second half the Saints had a scare when Topsy Ojo almost intercepted a loose pass from Ben Foden which would have given him a clear run to the try line. A poor kick from Paul Hodgson saw Ashton pick up and kick ahead to gain the Saints a platform in the home 22. The Irish were penalised and Myler made no mistake to make it 16-6.
After 58 minutes came the hammer blow for the Irish. They were pressing deep in the Saints 22 when they lost possession at a ruck, Dylan Hartley twice kicked on and then picked up to feed Lee Dickson. The scrum half fed Tonga’uiha before Calum Clark was hauled down narrowly short, but the ball was recycled to present Ashton with a simple try which Myler converted.
With 14 minutes to go Irish suddenly brought the game alive with two tries in the space of three minutes. Firstly replacement Richard Thorpe scored from a close-range scrum before a neat half-break from Dan Bowden sent Seilala Mapusua on an unopposed run to the line. Both tries were converted by Homer to reduce the arrears to only three points.
Back came Northampton and Myler kicked his fourth penalty before the Saints had to endure five minutes of Irish pressure to claim the win and end Irish’s play-off hopes.