There was no danger of The Volcano erupting yesterday. Lesley Vainikolo had been rendered dormant on Friday by a dead leg, leaving Charlie Sharples to plug the vent on the wing for Gloucester. The visitors had their moments in a pulsating encounter but were ultimately smothered by a cloud of Ashton tries.
There were three of them for Northampton's right wing, Chris Ashton, who is by some distance the most potent try-scoring force in the Guinness Premiership. The first two came courtesy of his blistering pace and the third was the result of an extraordinary act of generosity by Bruce Reihana, who hared across the whitewash in the final minute and then waited for his team-mate to catch up before presenting him with his hat-trick score. Ashton, who was blooded by England in Paris last month, has scored 15 tries in 17 Premiership appearances this season, the last of them yesterday earning his side a bonus point that helped put them two points ahead of Leicester at the top of the table.
"It was good to finish off like that," said Jim Mallinder, Saints' director of rugby. His team might lose pole position today, when their East Midlands rivals are in action up at Newcastle, but this win guaranteed their place in the semi-finals of the play-offs and eased the disappointment of their Heineken Cup quarter-final defeat away to Munster last weekend.
It might have been different had the Cherry and Whites not been routinely picked off and turned over when they attacked, which was not infrequently. As it was, after an early exchange of penalties the away side's defence was pierced by Ashton's arrow-straight dart up the middle after the excellent Courtney Lawes plucked line-out possession on the right. With Stephen Myler converting that try and then landing a second penalty, Northampton were 13-3 in the lead before Gloucester started to click, in the final 10 minutes of the opening half. First James Simpson-Daniel, a sometime England wing, went on a surging diagonal run and fed Sharples for a score in the right corner. Nicky Robinson converted. Then, after Myler nailed another penalty, came the bizarre spectacle of the referee, Andrew Small, awarding the Saints a 22-metre drop-out after the home centre James Downey had deliberately swatted the ball beyond the dead-ball line after chasing a kick with Sharples.
If that was a blow for Bryan Redpath's side, worse was to come. After five minutes of all-out attack at the start of the second half they were struck by a try-scoring bolt from the blue, Myler and Ashton combining to set up Dylan Hartley, the Northampton hooker and captain, for a gallop to the line. Five minutes later Lawes drove the ball up the middle and the scrum-half Lee Dickson provided the feed for Ashton to race over.
At 30-13 that looked to be that but Robinson kicked a penalty, Hartley was sent to the sin-bin for deliberate spoiling and the Gloucester lock Dave Attwood twisted over from close range. Robinson converted and the gap was down to seven points. It made things interesting, but only fleetingly so. Shane Geraghty, a replacement for Myler, kicked a penalty to stretch the difference to two scores. And then, with 45 seconds left on the clock, came the gift-wrapped hat-trick clincher for the red-hot Ashton.
Northampton Saints 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; M Easter, 62), J Kruger, C Lawes, P Dowson, R Wilson.
Gloucester F Burns (O Morgan, 56); C Sharples, J May (T Voyce, 56), M Tindall (capt), J Simpson-Daniel; N Robinson, R Lawson; N Wood (A Dickinson, 46), O Azam (S Lawson, 40), P Doran-Jones (P Capdevielle, 61); D Attwood, A Brown; A Strokosch, J Boer (P Buxton, 53), A Eustace.
Referee: A Small (London).