As Leicester found to their bitter regret two years ago, competing for both the main prizes at this time of the season can be tricky. The Tigers were out on their feet when they lost a Heineken Cup final to Leinster, and had to settle for winning the Premiership. This season Northampton are the only English team left attempting the double and their efforts to manage their resources – having played twice in the league in the previous eight days – almost cost them victory here. Instead, they held on for a win which kept them securely in the top four and the return to form of their England wing Chris Ashton was just as good news for next Sunday's European semi-final against Perpignan.
If London Irish had stitched together any pre-match plan of leapfrogging their opponents in the table, it was unpicked by predictable patterns of attack that Northampton contained for the best part of an hour. Worse than that, Irish conceded Ashton's eighth and ninth Premiership tries of the season – he is behind only Leicester's Alesana Tuilagi, who has 11 – both of which resulted from interventions by Dylan Hartley.
Then the captain and four of his Northampton pack-mates were substituted and Irish had a try on 64 minutes when the Saints pack allowed the replacement No 8 Richard Thorpe to score at the posts from a close-range scrum – one of the fresh men, the flanker Mark Easter, stayed bound and there was a handy blocking move by Darren Allinson on Lee Dickson at scrum-half.
Four minutes later, Dan Bowden, the eminently capable centre who has been starting at fly-half for Irish of late, made a clever back-handed pass through the tackle to Seilala Mapusua. The Samoan – one of three leaving Irish in what will be quite a shake-up this summer – sidestepped to apply the finish. Tom Homer converted both tries and the Saints' 23-6 lead had become 23-20.
It took a fourth penalty goal from Steve Myler after 73 minutes to reassure Northampton and the result was settled when Ashton covered across brilliantly four minutes later, to make a try-saving tackle on Topsy Ojo. The Exiles wing stayed seated after the final whistle, suggesting his regret at not passing to the two men outside him.
The Northampton director of rugby, Jim Mallinder, admitted that he had overplayed his full-back, Ben Foden, by a few minutes when totalled across this match and the last week's at Newcastle and Gloucester, under the agreement governing the welfare of England squad players. But the Rugby Football Union confirmed last night it was no more than a gentleman's handshake and there would be no sanction. Mallinder was happier talking about Ashton, who was away with England when Northampton suffered six league defeats in a row.
"Everything about Chris's game was quality," said Mallinder. "His lines of running and his kicking from open play were good. We took a bit of stick during our lean run but we're where we want to be."
In 31C heat that obliged the teams to take a drinks break in each half, Northampton had a first try just before the first slurp. Hartley hacked through and though the ball popped into Nick Kennedy's hands it was knocked out again by Hartley. This gave Saints 20 metres of short side to work with from their 22 – Ashton fed Jon Clarke, who passed outside for Ashton to score from just inside his own half.
It was 16-6 by the 53rd minute, with Homer kicking two penalties and Myler nudging his kicking success rate upwards from the 68 per cent that puts him well adrift of the best. On 57 minutes, Hartley's hack and deft flip allowed Dickson, Soane Tonga'uiha and Calum Clark to set up Ashton's second try. Irish's best spell followed, but it was not enough.
London Irish D Armitage; T Ojo, E Seveali'i (J Joseph, 60), S Mapusua, T Homer; D Bowden, P Hodgson (D Allinson, 55); C Dermody (capt; M Lahiff, 71), D Paice, F Rautenbach (P Ion, 63), N Kennedy, B Casey (G Johnson, 63), J Gibson, G Stowers (R Thorpe, 55), S Armitage.
Northampton Saints B Foden; C Ashton, J Clarke, J Downey,P Diggin; S Myler, L Dickson; S Tonga'uiha (A Waller, 58), D Hartley (capt; B Sharman, 58), B Mujati (T Mercey, 58), C Lawes (M Sorenson, 64), C Day, C Clark (M Easter, 64), R Wilson, P Dowson.
Referee D Rose (Warwickshire).
Tries: Thorpe, Mapusua
Cons: Homer 2
Pens: Homer 2
Tries: Ashton 2
Cons: Myler 2
Pens: Myler 4