Ashton brace keeps Saints on course for play-offs
April 23, 2011
Ashton brace keeps Saints on course for play-offs%]
Northampton held off a second half fightback from London Irish to notch a 26-20 victory in their Aviva Premiership clash at the Madejski Stadium and all but secure a place in the top four.
A brace of tries from man of the match Chris Ashton saw the Saints return to winning ways following their mid-week defeat at Gloucester with a 16-point haul from fly-half Stephen Myler helping the visitors cement fourth place in the Premiership table and stay on course for the semi-finals.
But they had to withstand a late rally from Irish with replacement Richard Thorpe and centre Seilala Mapusua crossing for second half scores as the home side fought bravely to keep their own post-season hopes alive. However, a determined defensive effort kept them at bay and leaves Bath - who meet Wasps later today - as the only side able to deny Northampton a play-off berth.
Irish had the first opportunity to open the scores but winger Tom Homer saw a penalty attempt from just inside his own half sail narrowly wide. Myler was also wide of the target with his first penalty but Saints would soon take a grip on the game.
A great line break from Homer threatened to split the Northampton defence open and gave the home side confidence to run the ball but pressure from Saints forced the error from Irish lock Bob Casey and the visitors tore downfield with devastating effect. Ashton started the move and a neat exchange with centre Jon Clarke was followed by a burst of speed from the England international who left Irish's Delon Armitage and Daniel Bowden in his wake as he raced down the touchline for the opening try.
Myler converted with an excellent kick from the touchline but Irish responded well with Homer landing a kick from long range before adding another simpler chance to reduce the arrears to just one point.
Northampton winger Chris Ashton celebrates one of the two tries he scored against Irish at the Madejski Stadium © Getty Images
Northampton gave themselves a little more breathing room with Myler's first penalty a couple of minutes later before another long-range attempt from Homer rebounded back off a post. That miss proved costly as Myler swiftly landed his second penalty to give the Saints a 13-6 interval lead.
Irish continued to show signs of life in the second half with fullback Topsy Ojo almost intercepting a loose pass from Ben Foden. A poor kick from Irish scrum-half Paul Hodgson was then pounced upon by Ashton whose kick ahead gave the Saints a good attacking platform in the Irish 22. They turned the screw to earn another penalty that Myler slotted to take his side out to a 10-point lead.
The game took a decisive turn just short of the hour mark with the home side pressing deep in the Saints' 22. Forward pressure forced a turnover and Saints hooker Dylan Hartley hacked on before feeding scrum-half Lee Dickson. The in-form No.9 then off loaded to prop Soane Tonga'uiha before Calum Clark was hauled down narrowly short. But there was to be no stopping the try-hungry Saints and the ball was recycled quickly to Ashton who crossed for a simple try which Myler converted.
With their season on the line, Irish suddenly brought the game alive with two tries in the space of three minutes - capitalising on several Northampton changes including the withdrawal of Hartley and influential lock Courtney Lawes. Firstly Thorpe scored from a close-range scrum before a neat half-break from Bowden sent Mapusua on an unopposed run to the line. Both tries were converted by Homer to bring his side to within three points and set up a tense finale.
Back came Northampton and Myler kicked his fourth penalty but the job was not done with a try-saving tackle from Ashton and Myler on Ojo the pick of a series of defensive heroics produced by a Saints side tackling their third Premiership rival in the space of nine days.
As a result, Jim Mallinder's side can now look forward to their Heineken Cup final four showdown with Perpignan next weekend safe in the knowledge that another semi-final appearance looks on the cards.
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