Northampton 29 Bristol 22: Lemi lends Saints a hand to prise the points from Bristol's grasp

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David Lemi, the Samoan wing who has made such an impression in his first Premiership season for Bristol, was responsible for a hat-trick of tries inside eight minutes at Franklin's Gardens yesterday, two of them for his own side. The first of the three got Northampton off to a flyer, however, and while a daft interception score after 80 seconds could not, at the moment of its occurrence, be seen as an indication of what lay in store for the West Countrymen, it just about defined their performance when considered with the benefit of hindsight.

Bristol must have kicked themselves all the way back to the Memorial Ground last night. They won the try-count by the odd score in five, butchered any number of opportunities to add to their tally and panicked so horribly at the last knockings that, having forfeited a game there for the winning, they very nearly cost themselves a losing bonus point into the bargain. Well as they have performed since returning to the top flight last September, they are not so accomplished that they can afford to turn silk purses into sows' ears.

Northampton are nobody's pushovers in their own environment, but they were vulnerable from the start on this occasion. From before the start, actually. As Paul Grayson, their coach, confirmed afterwards, they have an entire back division stretched out on the physiotherapy slab, and then some. Ben Cohen, Sean Lamont, Geoff Appleford, Seamus Mallon, David Quinlan, Neil Starling, Rhodri Davies... all of them are hors de combat. Mark Robinson, their outstanding scrum-half, has been struggling too, although he put in an appearance off the bench yesterday.

The Midlanders' youngsters, most notably the powerful Jon Clarke, have something about them, but their inexperience was exposed time and again by the likes of Shaun Perry and Sam Cox, who made line-breaks by the dozen. Having started the season in bold attacking mood, Bristol have been winning ugly of late. Yesterday, they had the chance to reassert their credentials as a team capable of running in tries from long range and to some extent, they took it. But it was still an afternoon of wasted moments.

That profligacy returned to bite them on the collective rear end in the last few minutes when, 22-19 up, they disappeared into their own nether regions. John Rudd, a powerful unit on the Northampton wing, beat a high-rolling gambler's tackle from Brian Lima to barrel his way into the 22, where he was comprehensively decked by a high hit from Dan Ward-Smith, the Bristol No 8.

Ward-Smith was sent to the sin bin, Saints opted for an attacking line-out, Paul Tupai claimed an important tail-gunner's catch to set the drive in motion and, when Steve Thompson was stopped just short of the line, the spherical Chris Budgen was on hand to take the scoring pass and roll over for the winning try.

Bruce Reihana converted and then hit the spot again with a penalty in the fifth minute of injury time, the result of fumbles by Lee Robinson and Gareth Llewellyn. With Bristol a man short in the pack, Northampton might have squeezed their pips in an effort to send them home with nothing. They chose the more cautious route. Should a single point divide the two clubs in the relegation struggle come May, the Saints will curse themselves loud and long.

Early in the game, Bristol were by far the more dynamic of the two teams. Their start was not exactly ideal: Lemi, running round the houses after gathering a loose pass from Joe El Abd, attempted a flat delivery to Bernardo Stortoni but found Clarke instead.

The Pacific islander made amends almost immediately, however, putting the fear of God into the Northampton defence by winning the race to an intelligent kick into space by Perry and then charging down Johnny Howard's clearance to complete an unlikely try.

When Perry made a long break into home territory a couple of minutes later, Lemi materialised on his outside to register another score.

Perry has had some hot press of late and he started brilliantly here. But Bristol's error count went through the roof once they hit the lead, and the scrum-half was as culpable as anyone. Indeed, he had a rotten time of it for half an hour, but he held his nerve, rediscovered his bearings and produced some terrific stuff after the break. A second individual rampage could, perhaps should, have resulted in another try for Lemi and that, coming on top of Darren Crompton's mauling finish from a penalty line-out, would have put the tin hat on it.

As it was, Bristol allowed Reihana to peg them back with the boot and ultimately paid a heavy price for their generosity. The Premiership is no place to be handing out free gifts.