Gloucester 27-15 Northampton Saints, Aviva Premiership, April 19
Battling Gloucester down Saints
April 19, 2011
Battling Gloucester down Northampton%]
Gloucester cemented third place in the Aviva Premiership table with a battling 27-15 victory over Northampton at Kingsholm.
Tries from centre Tim Molenaar, winger Charlie Sharples and hooker Olivier Azam saw the Cherry and Whites complete a double over their title rivals and stay course for the play-offs but it was a superb defensive display that shackled a much-changed Saints side and laid the foundation for what could be a priceless victory. Prop Alex Waller and replacement scrum-half Lee Dickson crossed for Northampton but not even the introduction of many of their front line stars in the second half could break down a resolute Gloucester side fully deserving of their win.
The fixture was originally scheduled for Boxing Day only to fall victim to the weather but there was little festive spirit on show from both sides in a keenly-contested game. Northampton began brightly but Gloucester stood firm and as a result tempers soon boiled over between Saints hooker Brett Sharman and his opposite number Azam. The game continued to simmer and Azam was lucky escape an immediate sanction for a head-butt on Saints lock Adam Eustace as he waded into a ruck, but will surely pay for his indiscretion at a later date.
Both sides were willing to give the ball some air, with Northampton fly-half Shane Geraghty more than happy to take the Gloucester defence on and the Saints playmaker was involved in the first try. Forward grunt took the game into the 22 where Geraghty drew the defence before the ball found Waller who muscled his way over in the corner.
Gloucester struck back in impressive style with an exceptional try for Molenaar. A solid lineout provided the platform and fly-half Nick Robinson fed his centre on a great line. His pace carried him away from the split defence for a well-worked score that was converted by Burns to give the hosts the lead.
A knock on from Geraghty inside his own 22 gifted Gloucester great field position midway through the half and they earned a penalty at the resulting the scrum, which Burns wasted no time in slotting. Saints responded well at the next scrum to earn a penalty of their own and kicked to the corner for a lineout. A clever nudge from Geraghty almost split the Gloucester defence with scrum-half Rory Lawson forced to carry the ball over his own line. The Saints pack stepped up again at the scrum and drew another penalty, landed by Geraghty to reduce the arrears to just two points.
Once again Gloucester hit back with a superb piece of running rugby. This time it was Sharples who produced a timely burst of speed to win the race to claim a Burns chip through to bring the Kingsholm faithful to their feet. Burns was also on hand to slot the conversion.
Struggling with a hamstring injury, Robinson ghosted through the Northampton line to create the next opening in what would be his last contribution before being replaced. He shifted the ball wide to Luke Narraway but the No.8 failed to hold onto the pass. Gloucester centre Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu almost wriggled free inside the Northampton 22 as the half drew to a close only to be floored by an excellent tackle from fullback Bruce Reihana. The Kiwi was involved at the other end of the field a few moments later but his pass to blindside Calum Clark went to ground with the defence breached.
Gloucester had the chance to have the final say in the half with a lineout steal leading to a penalty in midfield but Burns - now playing at fly-half - failed to hit the target.
A clash between Burns and Northampton flanker Tom Wood as the Gloucester youngster looked to chase his own kick brought the crowd to its feet at the start of the second half but referee Wayne Barnes was not swayed by their reaction.
Gloucester were soon back on the front foot with some good work from Fuimaono-Sapolu almost putting lock Alex Brown away inside the 22 and their endeavour drew a penalty from a desperate Northampton defence. The kick went to the corner and lock Dave Atwood claimed the ball before a good tackle from Saints centre Greig Tonks brought Gloucester wing Jonny May to a shuddering halt. Burns was then caught in two minds but the penalty eventually went the home side's way and he made no mistake from the kicking tee.
Gloucester pressure continued to reap reward with Saints penalised for going off their feet at the breakdown. The resulting kick went to the corner and the hosts rumbled the ball towards the line before Azam peeled off and stretched to score his side's third try.
Gloucester's Tim Molenaar splits the Northampton defence on his way to a try at Kingsholm © Getty Images
A penalty against Azam offered Northampton the chance to post a reply a few minutes later with the Saints opting to refresh their entire front-row ahead of the scrum deep inside the Gloucester 22. The presence of Soane Tonga'uiha, Dylan Hartley and Brian Mujati brought a succession of re-sets before the Gloucester pack rallied to win a priceless penalty and clear the danger.
Northampton re-grouped and took the game back deep into Gloucester territory but found their way blocked by a committed defence that were eventually forced to infringe to repel their visitors. Reihana then went to within inches with a darting run before Hartley was denied by Brown's ankle as he looked to touch the ball down - losing the ball in the process.
They soon had their hands back on to the ball thanks to another powerful scrum and when the ball popped out from an ominous-looking set-piece, Dickson pounced on it to grab a try that was converted by Geraghty.
Saints went looking for more as the game entered the final five minutes and another penalty was sent to the corner before they peppered the Gloucester line only to be thwarted by another huge defensive effort.
Burns spilled the ball to gift Northampton one final chance to rescue a bonus point from the game and Reihana once again went close before a pick and drive from Tonga'uiha took his side over only for the Television Match Official to rule he lost control in the act of scoring.
Play was called back for an earlier penalty and while the Gloucester pack survived yet another test, their eagerness to snuff out the danger handed Northampton one last attacking scrum. But it was an all too familiar story with some heroic defence shutting Saints out and sealing a deserved victory.
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Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.