Amidst a storm of controversy, Northampton lost their unbeaten Aviva Premiership record to the last kick of the game. Having snatched the lead only three minutes earlier, the Midland club stood and watched as Billy Twelvetrees kicked the 39-metre penalty goal which gave Gloucester their first win of the season.
Gloucester have never lost three successive matches at the start of any Premiership season, and they seldom looked like doing so here, despite the fact that they started at the foot of the table. But when Jamie Elliott scored Northampton's third try in the 79th minute, even the most confirmed occupant of the Kingsholm Shed must have feared the worst.
Only twenty seconds remained when Twelvetrees restarted and what followed came courtesy of the match officials. Television replays suggested at least four Gloucester players were in front of the restart but Northampton knocked on and Gloucester settled for a scrum on the opposition 10-metre line – and scrums had been the bane of the entire game.
Over half required a reset, half a dozen ended in penalties, and this final confrontation required two resets before Gloucester drove the Northampton pack round and up. Arguably No 8 Ben Morgan should have been penalised for fishing the ball back into the scrum as it wheeled but Martin Fox, the referee, decided Lee Dickson, the replacement Northampton scrum- half, was offside and Twelvetrees, fly-half and goalkicker after Freddie Burns left the field, stepped up to win the game.
"It's a shame when games are decided by a referee in the last couple of minutes," Jim Mallinder, Northampton's director of rugby, said carefully. "The crowd have a big impact here, you have to be very accurate in everything you do, you have to put the referee out of the equation."
Mallinder argued that his forwards controlled the first reset scrum and should have been given a turnover. "There were three massive decisions [by the referee] in a very short space of time which decided the outcome," he added, aware of course that it was his own decision to rest Alex Corbisiero, the England and Lions prop, for this game in compliance with the protocols of the elite player squad agreed between clubs and country.
Northampton could argue they were robbed, particularly after a wonderful piece of running by George North from his own 22 paved the way for Elliott's try. But they never played with the authority which was their hallmark on the first two weekends of the Premiership and, even though they led at the interval, they could not impose themselves on a Gloucester side which produced one of its blood-and-guts displays.
They did so despite the concession of a try to Ben Foden in the sixth minute. The full-back's skilful feet enabled him to profit from a break by Luther Burrell, and Northampton negotiated safely the 10-minute period when Sam Dickinson was in the sin-bin after tackling James Simpson-Daniel in the air. They were aided by Gloucester's decisions to kick penalties to the corner rather than at goal, so Gloucester were relieved to work Charlie Sharples into the corner just before the interval.
Northampton conceded the lead at the start of the second half. Jimmy Cowan took a tapped penalty as the Northampton forwards broke up from a scrum and Twelvetrees crossed for the try too easily for the comfort of any visiting defence coach. No matter, they regrouped and drove Manu Samoa over from a lineout.
Gloucester came again and Burns tried to catch Northampton napping when, with a 20-metre penalty on offer, he tapped to himself and was halted just short. But Elliott Stooke, the lock, celebrated his Gloucester Premiership debut with a try when Simpson-Daniel's lovely midfield run created space.
Yet the gap remained bridgeable. Burrell's potential scoring pass to North was judged forward and when Twelvetrees kicked deep into Northampton's 22, there seemed no danger. But with Gloucester a man short while Simpson-Daniel received treatment, North beat four tacklers and found Calum Clark inside him; the flanker linked with Elliott, who sprinted to the posts for the try which, with Myler's conversion, seemed to have won Northampton the game. So near yet so far.
Gloucester R Cook; C Sharples (J May 75), H Trinder, B Twelvetrees, J Simpson-Daniel ( May 21-25); F Burns (M Tindall, 69), J Cowan (D Robson, 75); D Murphy (Y Thomas, 66), D Dawidiuk (K Britton, 72), R Hardern (S Knight, 66), T Savage (capt; W James, 66), E Stooke, M Kvesic, A Qera (B Morgan, 63), S Kalamafoni.
Northampton B Foden; J Elliott, J Wilson (G Pisi, 46), L Burrell, G North; S Myler, K Fotuali'i (L Dickson, 55); A Waller (G Denman, 66), D Hartley (captain; M Haywood, 72)), T Mercey (E Waller, 66), S Manoa (P Dowson, 63), C Day, T Wood, C Clark, S Dickinson (G van Velze, 69).
Referee Martin Fox.
Tries: Sharples, Twelvetrees, Stooke
Pens: Burns (2), Twelvetrees
Tries: Foden, Manoa, Elliott
Cons: Myler (3)