For Jim Mallinder, it is a marathon not a sprint. Or it will be next Sunday when the one-time England full-back tackles the 26 miles and 385 yards of the 2010 London Marathon to raise money for the charity Autism Concern. In his professional concern as Northampton's director of rugby, the end is now in sight to the nine-month slog of the regulation Guinness Premiership for the Saintly marathon man and his team. Having taken the lead with this try-bonus win (albeit for 24 hours, before Leicester's victory at Newcastle yesterday) and guaranteed a finish in the top four, his charges have the sprint that is the end-of-season play-offs to come – beyond their final three league fixtures, starting at Bath tomorrow, and the business of securing a home semi-final at Franklin's.
With that decisive winner-takes-all extra little stretch now looming, Mallinder could hardly have a better man for the job than Chris Ashton. In the course of the marathon season, Northampton's flying machine has become to the Premiership what Usain Bolt is to the international athletics arena: unstoppable. Mike Tindall did manage to halt the Lancastrian with one brilliant bit of lassoing around the ankles midway through the first-half on Saturday, but following his stuttering start in the top flight last season Ashton is developing into the try-a-game merchant he was in his debut season with the Saints down in National One two years ago.
The former Wigan Warriors rugby leaguer picked off a hat-trick against the Cherry and Whites, on an afternoon when the clinical taking of chances and some text-book turning over at the breakdown proved the difference between two sides more evenly matched than the final score suggested. Ashton's first score was a lightning bolt up the middle following a line-out steal by Courtney Lawes and a flat feed by Stephen Myler. The second was a crash-ball burst from closer range; the third was a gift from Bruce Reihana after Ashton had followed his fellow-wing over the whitewash. Ashton now has 15 tries in 17 Premiership matches this season, topping the top-flight finishers' chart by a distance. "Chris's try-scoring record is remarkable," Mallinder said. "His understanding of the game has really developed."
Northampton: Tries Ashton 3, Hartley; Conversions Myler 3; Penalties Myler3, Geraghty. Gloucester: Tries: Sharples, Attwood; Conversions: Robinson 2. Penalties: Robinson 3.
Northampton: B Foden; C Ashton, J Clarke, J Downey, B Reihana; S Myler (S Geraghty, 61), L Dickson (A Dickens, 75); S Tonga'uiha, D Hartley (capt), E Murray (B Mujati, 61), I Fernandez-Lobbe (B Sharman, 58, Easter, 62), J Kruger, C Lawes, P Dowson, R Wilson.
Gloucester: F Burns (O Morgan, 56); C Sharples, J May (T Voyce, 56), Mike Tindall (capt), J Simpson-Daniel; N Robinson, R Lawson; N Wood (A Dickinson, 46), O Azam (S Lawson, h-t), P Doran-Jones (P Capdevielle, 61), D Attwood, A Brown, A Strokosch, J Boer (P Buxton, 53), A Eustace.
Referee: A Small (London).