Saints’ chances of reaching the Aviva Premiership play-offs were left in tatters as Leicester Tigers won a frantic east midlands derby 30-24 on Saturday evening.
Tries from Harry Thacker, Vereniki Goneva and Freddie Burns, who racked up a total of 20 points, won it for Tigers at Franklin’s Gardens.
Saints had started the day four points behind fourth-placed Leicester and they were only able to grab a losing bonus point.
Teimana Harrison and George Pisi twice gave Jim Mallinder’s men hope of a comeback at 10-0 and 20-13 down, but Burns’ 65th-minute effort put the game beyond reach.
It means Saints are now seven points adrift of Tigers with only two games of the regular season remaining.
The injury-ravaged home side had gone into the game with a casualty list that contained as many as 10 first-team players.
And Tigers were to create the first opportunity of note, with Jamie Elliott forced to do some important defensive work.
Elliott raced across and just got to a superbly-placed Burns kick before Telusa Veainu could touch the ball down.
It was a try-saving intervention, but Leicester were to open the scoring on 12 minutes as Burns landed a penalty, which was earned at the scrum.
And it was to get worse for Saints moments later as hooker Thacker beat Ahsee Tuala and raced clear to score a fine try.
Burns landed the conversion and Tuala limped off to add to Saints’ injury woes.
The Gardens faithful were fearing a start similar to the one at Welford Road in January, when Saints were 21-0 down after 22 minutes.
But Harrison’s strong break helped the home team respond and Stephen Myler soon made the most of a penalty chance to cut the gap to seven.
Saints suddenly had some momentum and after Luther Burrell brilliantly flew into a move, Tigers conceded as Harrison dotted down in the corner.
Myler’s superb touchline conversion levelled it up at 10-10, but Burrell was to undo his good work moments later as his loose pass under pressure found Goneva, who raced in to score from halfway.
Burns easily added the extras and Leicester had their seven-point buffer back.
Tigers could have been down to 14 men before the break as referee Tim Wigglesworth went to the TMO for a possible Manu Tuilagi tip tackle on George Pisi.
A penalty was given to Saints and they were soon able to reduce the arrears to four points at half-time as Myler kept his nerve to land a penalty with the final kick of a breathless first 40.
Burns responded after Tigers made a strong start to the second half, but Saints were refusing to go away, ramping up the pressure after three penalties were kicked to the corner.
Tigers escaped a sin-binning, but they couldn’t stop Saints scoring, with George Pisi’s power finally making the pressure pay.
Myler’s conversion was wide, leaving the gap at two points with 25 minutes remaining.
Burns extended Leicester’s lead with a penalty before Myler responded, but Leicester were soon scoring a vital try.
A slick move had Saints all at sea and Burns was able to find a gap to score.
He added the extras to stretch his team’s lead to nine points with just 15 minutes to go and Saints’ play-off hopes looked to be slipping away.
JJ Hanrahan, on for Myler, landed a penalty with four minutes remaining, but Saints couldn’t get the possession they needed in the Leicester half to earn anything more than a losing bonus point, and Tigers celebrated a crucial derby-day success.
Saints: Tuala (Mallinder 14); K Pisi, G Pisi, Burrell, Elliott (Collins 67); Myler (Hanrahan 71), Kessell; A Waller (Ma’afu 65), Haywood, Brookes (Hill 59); Craig, Day (Matfield 59); Lawes, Wood (c), Harrison (Nutley 65).
Leicester: Tait; Veainu, Betham, Tuilagi, Goneva (Thompstone 71); Burns (Williams 65), B Youngs (Harrison 70); Ayerza (Mulipola 59), Thacker, Cole; Barrow, Kitchener (Slater 58); Fitzgerald, McCaffrey, Fonua (Croft 48).
Referee: Tim Wigglesworth