Brian Ashton's back-row plans for the Six Nations need a wholesale rethink. Dan Ward-Smith, Bristol's highly-regarded No 8 who was expected to make his England debut next Saturday in the Calcutta Cup, left the field after 20 minutes on a stretcher and with a breathing apparatus attached to his mouth. He was reported to have suffered a dislocated kneecap when trapped at the bottom of a ruck, which could have ended his season.
The English-born, New Zealand-raised 29-year-old's injury came as a result of his much-lauded pack being pushed and shoved around by the Saints forwards, who from the start had shown greater aggression and intensity. After a charge by the prop Soane Tonga'uiha, Saints forced a scrum on the Bristol five-metre line. Ward-Smith was hurried and picked up at the base, trying to gain valuable yards. He was pushed back by a swarm of green shirts and once the ruck cleared, he was left prone.
Saints received some reward for their dominance when play resumed, Carlos Spencer kicking a simple penalty, but they had to wait until the 34th minute for the try they had threatened from kick-off. Smart passing gave Ben Cohen an overlap that he exploited with a dive for the line and his 100th try for the club.
Bristol are a tenacious and cussed outfit though, and after hardly featuring in the first half they accepted a gift of a try in the 45th minute when Brian Lima read a blind pop-pass by Daniel Browne in midfield and outpaced the chasing Cohen. From nowhere Bristol were a point behind and Saints, grumbling, really should blame themselves for totally dominating the first half but scoring only a penalty and a try.
Momentum is a valuable asset and Bristol now had it but the half was scrappy, punctuated by yellow cards for Tonga'uiha, Gareth Llewellyn and Christian Short. Such was the paucity of chances that Spencer and Jason Strange elected, unsuccessfully, for long-range penalty attempts.
Fittingly, the final and crucial score was supplied by the revived Bristol forwards, Alfie To'oala using their numerical advantage well with Short absent. They rumbled over from close range, Strange kicked his second conversion and Bristol's phenomenal season continued.
Not, however, without a last scare, when Saints wasted an overlap with a knock-on. Such errors separate second from bottom and second from top.
Northampton: P Diggin; S Lamont, R Kydd, D Quinlan (capt), B Cohen; C Spencer, M Robinson; S Tonga'uiha, D Hartley (D Richmond, 80), C Budgen, D Browne, C Short, P Tupai (S Emms, 55-65), D Browne, D Fox (B Lewitt, 71).
Bristol: J Taumalolo; B Lima, N Brew, R Higgitt, D Lemi; J Strange, S Perry; A Clarke (D Hilton, 70), M Regan, D Crompton, R Winters, G Llewellyn (S Hohneck, 69), M Salter (capt), D Ward-Smith (R Pennycook, 20), A To'oala.
Referee: S Davey (Sussex).Reuse content