Saints were stunned as London Irish landed a late blow to claim their first Aviva Premiership win of the season at the Madejski Stadium on Boxing Day.
Referee Ian Tempest awarded Irish a penalty try two minutes from time and Shane Geraghty’s conversion sealed a 25-23 victory, their first in seven attempts.
For Saints it was a gut-wrenching end after Kahn Fotuali’i’s try looked to have given them the victory.
But Jim Mallinder’s men were eventually made to pay for their slow start, with the men in grey having fallen 15-3 down inside 35 minutes.
They eventually recovered, with Ken Pisi and George North scoring either side of half-time, and they looked to have done enough when the impressive Fotuali’i grabbed a 62nd-minute try.
But Saints failed to kill Irish off after Aseli Tikoirotuma was sin-binned three minutes later and when Jamie Gibson was yellow carded four minutes from time, they were in trouble.
And Irish took their chance, getting a huge shove on at the scrum and earning a penalty try to give Geraghty the opportunity to win it against former club, which he did.
It was a fourth defeat in seven Premiership games for Saints, who will now be tasked with bouncing back in the game against Exeter Chiefs at Franklin’s Gardens on New Year’s Day.
But for Irish it is sweet relief after six successive Premiership defeats.
Fotuali’i, who had admitted he had been ‘pretty average’ during the early stages of the season, had helped get Saints on the front foot early on, pushing a brilliant box-kick into Irish territory.
And from there, they put the squeeze on, making a mess of the Irish lineout and smashing the resulting scrum.
But when the penalty came, fly-half Stephen Myler fluffed his lines.
Irish were soon at the door at the other end and they were to take a surprising lead after confidently kicking a penalty to the corner.
A huge drive saw flanker Luke Narraway profit, with the TMO confirming that he had got the ball down.
Chris Noakes missed the conversion, but Saints were five points down early on and Irish were making the most of the shot in the arm that the early try had provided.
Another Irish invasion into visiting territory was stopped well by the men in grey, who eased the pressure with another scrum penalty and soon pushed on at the other end.
Myler made amends for his earlier miss by putting three points on the board, but Noakes quickly restored his team’s five-point lead after Courtney Lawes was penalised.
Scrum-half Brendan McKibbin fancied extending that advantage with an ambitious penalty from halfway, but his effort was horribly short, prompting groans from the home fans.
Those supporters were soon on their feet though as a fine move from Irish cut Saints apart and full-back Sean Maitland dived in to score in the corner.
Noakes converted to take his team into a 15-3 lead with six minutes to go until half-time and Saints were in desperate need of a rapid response.
And they got it, scoring what looked an easy try as the ball went wide for Ken Pisi, who cruised in unopposed.
Myler missed the conversion, meaning Saints would have to overturn a seven-point deficit during the second half.
They set about it immediately, pushing Irish back, and the pressure told five minutes after the restart.
Fotuali’i’s fantastic chip over the defence was gathered by North, who was a happy man after scoring his first try of the season.
Myler’s difficult day with the boot continued as he missed the conversion from the left touchline, but Noakes was more assured at the other end, landing a long-range penalty.
That meant Saints headed into the final half an hour five points down, but they were looking far sharper, with Fotuali’i pulling the strings.
And after Irish offended close to their own line, Myler landed an easy penalty from in front of the posts.
The Saints momentum was starting to build and after the likes of JJ Hanrahan and Tom Collins had been introduced, they stepped things up even more.
Collins, on for North, scythed through the Irish defence and handed the ball to Fotuali’i for a deserved score.
Myler added the extras and Saints were ahead for the first time.
And they were soon a man up, too, as Irish’s Tikoirotuma was sin-binned for a dangerous tackle on Ben Foden, who felt the full force of the powerhouse winger.
But Saints couldn’t make their extra man count and by the time Tikoirotuma returned, Irish were firmly on the front foot.
Jamie Gibson was sent to the bin as Saints continued to infringe and after Irish went for the scrum, the referee eventually opted to award a penalty try.
Geraghty’s conversion put Irish ahead and after Myler saw his drop-goal attempt charged down, Irish kicked the ball out of play to spark scenes of jubilation.
London Irish: Maitland; Lewington, Hearn, Williams, Tikoirotuma; Noakes (Geraghty 65), McKibbin; Court, Paice, Franks (Aulika 65); Symons (c), Lloyd (Sinclair 58); Narraway (Trayfoot 58), Cowan, Treviranus.
Saints: Foden; K Pisi, G Pisi, Burrell (Hanrahan 58), North (Collins 62); Myler, Fotuali’i (Dickson 69); E Waller (A Waller 58), Hartley (c) (Haywood 61), Hill (Denman 61); Paterson (Dickinson 58), Day (Matfield 65); Lawes, Gibson, Harrison..
Referee: Ian Tempest