Bristol Bears 20 Northampton Saints 36
Courtney Lawes enjoyed a triumphant return to club action following his England captaincy exploits as Saints shone brightly at Ashton Gate.
Lawes, who stepped in for an absent Owen Farrell to lead his country to an impressive Twickenham victory over South Africa six days earlier, produced another strong and powerful display in his side’s bonus-point victory which lifted them into the Premiership top four.
Chris Boyd’s side outplayed a Bristol outfit still very much a shadow of the team which dominated the Premiership last season until being badly derailed in the play-offs by eventual champions Harlequins.
Indeed, if you had to put your shirt on either of these two outfits making the end of season shoot-outs on this game, it would be confidently placed on a Saints team which dominated the set-piece and finished try-scoring chances clinically.
Bears had roared into life after the Premiership Cup break with an early try but the hosts found themselves trailing 20-13 at half-time as Saints took the blow and replied with a couple of punishing hits themselves in front of the Bristol crowd.
Turning down a kick at goal, the hosts worked Bristol produced the perfect driving maul from the lineout and Saints had little answer in defence as Bristol piled over the line and hooker Jake Kerr rose to take the plaudits with ball in hand.
Callum Sheedy converted to give the West Country men the confident start they had wanted. Yet it failed to produce the expected domination their supporters had hoped for the rest of the half.
Instead, it was Northampton who grew in confidence and belief. They responded quickly with some pressure themselves resulting in Dan Biggar sending his first penalty attempt sailing through the posts. The Welsh fly-half closed the gap to just a point with a second kick with handling mistakes and indecision costing the home side and promised to ruin the strong start.
Northampton were also guilty of the odd crucial dropped ball as the game was peppered with unforced errors in the opening 20 minutes from teams looking unexpectedly nervous and lacking cohesion.
Sheedy’s first penalty, as Bristol eventually realised it would be wise to make the most of kicking opportunities, had the home fans cheering once more.
Powerful South African No8 Juarno Augustus was proving a real thorn in the Bears side with his impressive ball-carrying but his team-mates failed to supply enough support to punch a decisive hole in the Bristol defence. A Sheedy penalty stretched the Bears lead after a fine Fitz Harding turnover but Saints finally found their clinical edge.
A swift move sparked by England full-back George Furbank was continued by the supporting Alex Mitchell who burst towards the Bears line before feeding prop Paul Hill to finish the job with ease. Bears were caught cold by another well worked Saints attack moments later but this time wing Tommy Freeman darted across for the Saints score.