Harlequins, masters of all they surveyed until mid-December, have now lost three of their last five games.
Equally to the point, given that the England caretaker coaches Stuart Lancaster and Graham Rowntree were at Franklin's Gardens last night, some of their Test hopefuls have lost ground in the race for selection. Northampton have no such issues. Driven along by their indefatigable flankers Phil Dowson and Tom Wood, they looked a very decent side indeed in seeing off the Premiership leaders. Hell, even the deeply unsettled and rather troublesome Chris Ashton was fully tuned in, treating the capacity crowd to some roving rampages on either wing.
There were enough sub-plots to furnish a Scandinavian crime novel as two of the season's bigger hitters began slugging it out – a good 50 per cent of the combatants had points to prove in the representative sense – and while the Londoners' second-string No 10 Rory Clegg, on duty once again for the stricken Nick Evans, caught the eye early with a couple of half-breaks, thereby reminding the audience why he is ranked above the in-form Saints pivot Ryan Lamb, the first serious statement in the England context was made by Ben Foden, the World Cup full-back and hot favourite to retain his place for the opening Six Nations game with Scotland on 4 February.
Northampton had dominated all but the opening three or four minutes, ruling the roost at the set-piece and shredding their opponents on the drive; indeed, had it not been for a characteristically energetic defensive contribution from their captain Chris Robshaw, the visitors might have been in a significant degree of strife by the end of the first quarter. As it was, they were only six points and a man down – Nick Easter, their Test No 8, was sent to the cooler for ignoring the warning of the excellent referee Dave Pearson and dragging down a maul near his own line – when Foden intervened on 24 minutes.
A satisfying intervention it was too. Following a floated prop's pass from Paul Doran-Jones, who juggled the ball like a circus clown before propelling it in the general direction of his wide runners, Foden found himself confronted by his main rival for the red-rose No 15 shirt, Mike Brown. A touch of the turbo-charger took him wide towards the right flag, Brown was marginally too high and fractionally too late with his tackle – damagingly for him, given the VIPs in the crowd, he seemed surprised by his opponent's pace – and within a nanosecond, the touchdown was completed. "Try scored by England's full-back," declared the stadium announcer, pointedly.
Lamb sent his conversion attempt across the face of the sticks, but as he had been accurate enough otherwise – there were three penalties and a drop goal to his name by the interval – Northampton ended the half handily placed at 17-3.
Quins had opportunities to reel things in a little immediately on the resumption but Clegg, not the most reliable of marksmen at the moment, was in need of a radar readjustment. Thus encouraged, Northampton found a second wind and after Ashton had threatened down the right, Lamb orchestrated the switchback across field so precisely that Roger Wilson had the easiest of jobs in claiming his side's second try. Lamb converted this time to put his side well out of sight.
Brown continued to look uncomfortable, Clegg was withdrawn on the hour and Joe Marler, mentioned in some quarters as an England prop in waiting, also failed to go the distance. The Saints, meanwhile, continued to enjoy themselves and took great pleasure in slamming the door on the Quins. Even with their lock Mark Sorenson in the bin, they were seldom troubled and had it not been for the odd fumble from their Samoan centre George Pisi, who made more handling errors here than at any stage during his brief career in the East Midlands, they would have cruised past the 30-point mark.
Scorers: Northampton: Tries Foden, Wilson; Conversion Lamb; Penalties Lamb 3; Drop goal: Lamb. Harlequins: Penalty Clegg.
Northampton: B Foden; C Aston, G Pisi, J Downey (TMay 71), N Cato; R Lamb (S Myler, 72), L Dickson (M Roberts, 63); S Tonga'uiha, D Hartley (capt, M Haywood 71), P Doran- Jones; S Manoa, M Sorenson (C Day, 68); M Dowson, T Wood (B Nutley, 68), R Wilson.
Harlequins: M Brown; T Williams (S Smith, 50), M Hopper, J Turner-Hall, U Monye; R Clegg, D Care; J Marler (M Lambert, 56), J Brooker (J Gray, h-t), J Johnston; O Kohn(T Vallejos, 58), G Robson; C Robshaw (capt), L Wallace (T Guest, 50), N Easter.
Referee: D Pearson (Northumberland).