London Irish 15 Northampton 36
Northampton produced a courageous performance to keep themselves firmly in the Zurich Premiership play-off picture as Paul Grayson masterminded their victory over London Irish at the Madejski Stadium.
England World Cup ace Grayson kicked 21 points after Saints lost locks Rob Hunter and Jon Phillips to first-half injuries.
Hunter was carried off with his neck in a brace after being hurt when he scored Northampton’s opening try.
Phillips had limped away 20 minutes earlier, yet Saints displayed admirable character to recover from such a serious double setback.
Grayson inspired them – while tries by Hunter, wing Bruce Reihana and scrum-half Mark Robinson took Saints third in the table and inflicted a second successive home league defeat on Irish.
Wing Paul Sackey and full-back Michael Horak claimed first-half touchdowns for the Exiles, who failed to score in the second period as Saints posted 26 unanswered points.
Northampton gave a first Premiership start to front-row recruit and former Tonga Test captain Tevita Taumepeau, but Irish found themselves without half the pack on duty in a bruising battle against Wasps last weekend.
Prop Rob Hardwick and the back-row trio of Paul Gustard, Declan Danaher and Chris Sheasby all missed out – hampering Irish’s attempts to consolidate a top-three place.
It was Saints, though, who suffered all the injury problems during a frenetic first half.
Hunter’s departure followed the earlier loss of Phillips; centre Chris Hyndman also went off, and his replacement Mark Tucker suffered a head wound – all before half-time.
Given such a scale of disruption, it was no surprise that Irish made all the early running – and after Mark Mapletoft had missed a third-minute penalty chance, the Exiles ripped open Northampton’s defence.
A superbly-timed Mapletoft pass found Sackey, and his angled run easily eluded Saints’ cover.
Mapletoft converted and then added a penalty to put Irish 10-0 ahead early in the second quarter, before Northampton rallied.
A succession of robust forward drives penned Irish back, and there was little they could do to stop Hunter from powering over. Grayson’s conversion narrowed the deficit, but it was all overshadowed by Hunter’s injury as he required six minutes of treatment before being carried off.
Northampton kept plugging away, and Grayson hauled them level with a penalty on 37 minutes which looked to have completed a gutsy fightback until Irish struck deep into first-half injury time.
Irish, keen to spin possession wide, added a second try when Horak was put through a sizeable gap by centre Geoff Appleford – and despite a missed Mapletoft conversion, the Exiles deserved their 15-10 interval advantage.
But the Saints, inspired by Grayson’s supreme tactical kicking, came out firing for the second period.
After Grayson had slotted his second penalty, he then rifled the ball brilliantly into space to leave the Irish defence flat-footed.
Grayson’s vision offered Reihana a sight of the line, and he did not disappoint – finishing off in style for Grayson to convert via a post and hoisting Saints 20-15 ahead.
Irish were rocked by the strength of Saints’ revival, and Grayson further emphasised the point by landing another penalty as a one-sided third quarter neared its conclusion.
The Exiles just could not escape swarming Saints’ pressure, and Grayson’s fourth penalty left Irish with a mountain to climb at 26-15 adrift.
Grayson added a 65th-minute penalty, confirming the scale of a spectacular Irish collapse which raised serious question marks about their ability to challenge at the Premiership’s business end.
Robinson rubbed salt into a gaping wound when he sprinted over four minutes into injury-time, leaving Irish wondering where it had all gone so spectacularly wrong.