Diggin puts Hill in a hole as Bristol fall to pieces

Northampton 66 Bristol 3
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Bristol's Richard Hill could not be more open and honest about the reasons for tossing away his club's prospects of progress in the European Challenge Cup by fielding second-team players and saving the rest for league matches. But the head coach pushed the bounds of glasnost after his side were on the wrong end of Northampton's biggest win in 12 seasons of continental competition.

"I was going to put out the same team in the return game next week," said Hill, "but, unusually, there were two or three characters who let the side down badly here and absolutely killed us. All 15 have to be highly committed against a team like Northampton. There were people making absolutely ridiculous defensive decisions."

The fingered few – no names, no pack-drill from Hill – and the merits or otherwise of the overall policy is up to Bristol's board and supporters to judge. The club suffered eight injuries, Hill explained, during last season's Heineken Cup and went on to lose their last six Premiership matches. Northampton weren't bothered, of course. They accepted the gift of maximum points – scoring 10 tries with three and two respectively going to their wings, Chris Ashton and Paul Diggin – and stayed top of Pool Two with 173 points from three matches. The reward to the best-performing group winners is home advantage in the quarter- and semi-finals; the ultimate prize is automatic qualification for next season's Heineken Cup.

Ashton and Diggin played on the left and right wings in the first half and vice versa in the second but either way Bristol barely laid a hand on them or the full-back Bruce Reihana, who appeared to be operating in a gear two or three higher than his opponents.

Bristol's defence of the wide channels was quite awful and the scrummage was in trouble throughout. Diggin and the back-rowers Roger Wilson and Mark Easter scored tries in the first 25 minutes and Dylan Hartley, the Saints hooker, unleashed the energy pent-up during four substitute appearances for England in the autumn internationals. When Reihana was allowed another easy run of about 50 metres, the support of Lee Dickson and Wilson worked the ball to Diggin, who was tackled a metre short. He popped a pass to Ashton and all the prolific former rugby leaguer had to do was fall over the line for his seventh try of the season.

Ashton's eighth and ninth followed in the second half, but Reihana was the first over, straight from a scrum and batting off a tackle Luke Eves will not care to remember. Then again, Eves had been persuaded to play despite a large infected bunion on his foot. Ouch, squared. Stephen Myler kicked his fifth conversion and it was 35-3. Diggin, Jon Clarke and Easter, with his second, all crossed after that in a flurry of one-handed ball-carrying and flashy passes.

Northampton: B Reihana (capt); P Diggin, C Mayor, J Downey (J Clarke, 59), C Ashton; S Myler (C Spencer, 53), L Dickson; S Tonga'uiha, D Hartley (P Shields, 66), E Murray (B Stewart, 40), I Fernandez Lobbe (A Rae, 53), C Day, M Easter, R Wilson (M Hopley, 53), S Gray.

Bristol: V Lilo; T Arscott, L Eves (L Robinson, 59), K Maggs, A Elliott; A Jarvis (C Ashwin, 65), G Beveridge (H Thomas, 57); M Irish, S Linklater (D Blaney, 59), P Bracken (R Hogan, 65), M Sambucetti (N Budgett, 59), D Attwood, M Salter (capt), J Phillips, R Pennycook (A To'oala, 40).

Referee: R Poite (France).