Northampton Saints 21 Bristol Bears 28: Tom Vickers' review and player ratings
If ever a game was a microcosm of Saints’ season, this was it.
Two steps back, three steps forward and then another two steps back.
Saints went from 14-0 down to 21-14 up to 28-21 down.
And then the final whistle blew, leaving players, coaches and supporters scratching the heads.
The main bone of contention was the departure of James Grayson 20 minutes from time.
Why did Saints take off a fly-half who was running the show and landing most kicks that came his way from the tee?
Boss Chris Boyd said it was to bring the powerful boot of Harry Mallinder into the action, to push Bristol back.
But this change had the opposite effect as Saints lost control and the Bears breathed new life into their victory bid.
Mallinder missed a penalty he would expect to make, not only prompting questions about why he was introduced but also leaving Saintly observers wondering why it was he rather than Piers Francis who was given kicking duties in Grayson’s absence.
Mallinder isn’t a bad place-kicker, let’s be clear about that.
But the way Piers Francis kicked under pressure when Saints beat Exeter at Sandy Park in February would suggest the centre should have been given the gig here.
Yes, Bristol won the game by more than just a penalty in the end.
But if they had gone 10 points down with 17 minutes remaining, they may have wilted more.
Of course, it’s all ifs, buts and maybes.
And there was more than just that miss that lost Saints the game, notably a continual inability to execute lineouts under pressure, something that has regularly blighted the team.
So those purely blaming Mallinder must look at the bigger picture.
And those who took aim at him on social media must remember this is a young man who has not only done so much to recover from injury setbacks during his relatively short career but who has done so much for the club and its Foundation during that time.
Mallinder also possesses plenty of natural quality, but who can blame him for not being razor-sharp when there are no Wanderers games to get players up to speed.
Training only does so much and bench appearances against top teams are never easy.
That being said, Saints will expect much more from all of their replacements than they have got in recent weeks.
Too often it has been the case that the bench hasn’t been able to influence the game in a match-winning manner.
Compare that to how Bristol's replacements had their say on Sunday and it hurts even more.
Costly points have been conceded by Saints and even the wins they have got have been far from comfortable.
Bristol showed how you take advantage under pressure late on, as all title-chasing teams do.
It is something Saints must develop: that relentless, ruthless killer instinct.
Because beating Exeter and Sale simply goes to waste if you then go on to lose home games against Bath and Bristol, as good as those two teams can be.
Saints have now lost twice to a Bristol team who have been shorn of so many of their best players for both matches.
They couldn't have asked for better chances to beat the Bears, but when opportunity came knocking late on in both matches, it was squandered in agonising fashion.
Saints have had a run of tough games of late, during which they have played all of the current top four.
But if they want to be anywhere near that themselves they must not only find a way to recover again but to win, and keep winning.
The season is still alive at home and abroad, but decision making on and off the pitch will be key if this is to be a successful season.
Now it’s up to Saints to come up with the right solutions against struggling Worcester Warriors at Sixways on Saturday.
How they rated...
Made a huge amount of metres for his team in a sparky showing, which also included a try that came after he refused to give up hope... 7.5
Saints were winning when the wing was forced off and he could be happy enough with his personal showing as he put pressure on Bristol... 6.5
Couldn't quite have the influence he has had in recent matches but still put himself about as much as he could... 6
Made a couple of big hits that shook the opposition and also showed off his passing game with a lovely effort in the build-up to Furbank's score... 6.5
Another accomplished performance from the talented young back, who played a key role with a kick ahead for Furbank's try... 7
JAMES GRAYSON - CHRON STAR MAN
His superb pass set up Isiekwe's score and he was pulling the strings well for Saints before coming off, kicking well from the tee also... 8
The scrum-half's boot is impressive and his passing game isn't bad either! Another sharp showing overall... 6.5
Was making a record 206th Premiership appearance for Saints but found himself on the wrong side of the referee on a couple of occasions... 6
Has been a key man for Saints this season and carried with plenty of fight but couldn't really rattle the Bears... 6
His eyes lit up as he charged down the wing on one occasion but Bristol stopped him and they didn't let him get on top at scrum time as he has done in recent months... 6
Never stopped working, continually hunting charge-downs and trying to have an influence on the game... 6.5
A big shift from the Fiji lock who came off at a time when Saints had the game in their grasp, and he contributed plenty... 6.5
Popped up on the wing to grab himself a try and he was hungry for action as he charged around the field... 7
Another huge effort from the flanker, but his eagerness didn't find favour with referee Tom Foley on a couple of occasions... 7
Won some crucial turnovers for his team and showed just how important he is to this side once again... 7.5
Replacements (who played more than 20 minutes)
MIKE HAYWOOD (for Matavesi 54)
Tried to carry Saints forward with some fire and desire in the lineout drive but couldn't help them hold on... 6
NICK AUTERAC (for Waller 54)
Wasn't really able to have the impact he has had in recent times as Bristol eventually recovered... 6
EHREN PAINTER (for Hill 54)
Not much the young prop could do about this defeat as he saw his team fail to make up for that defeat to the Bears back in December... 6
PIERS FRANCIS (for Proctor 57)
Put pressure on Bristol to win Saints a penalty that was eventually missed and didn't do much wrong after coming on... 6