Northampton moved top of the Guinness Premiership on Saturday thanks to a clinical 38-23 win over Gloucester at the Gardens.
Northampton Saints moved the top of the Guinness Premiership on Saturday thanks to a 38-23 bonus-point win over Gloucester at Franklin's Gardens.
Chris Ashton scored a hat-trick in a rematch of the LV= Cup final, but the Saints far from had it all their own way, with the visitors' persistence a key factor in making it a thrilling encounter.
The game started with the trading of penalties, but the next chance at points ended in a 10-point swing in the Saints favour.
Awarded a penalty in front of the posts, Gloucester's Jake Boer decided inexplicably to run the kickable chance and the ball was turned over inside Northampton's 22.
Ben Foden's thumping clearance earned a lineout from which the ball quickly found its way into the hands of Ashton.
The league's top try scorer put his foot down to race between defenders and under the posts with Stephen Myler converting.
Nevertheless, the visitors were enjoying their fair share of possession and employed the tactic of running from deep, James Simpson-Daniel in particular worrying the Northampton defence.
After kicking his first penalty of the day though, Nicky Robinson could not convert his and Gloucester's chances, missing two almost identical chances.
The next Gloucester attack again ended in points for the Saints as Ben Foden sliced apart the visiting backline in a superb counter-attack.
Ashton was almost released again and although he was hauled down short, play came back for another Myler penalty.
Gloucester hit back four minutes later as Simpson-Daniel managed to pop the ball up to Charlie Sharples to score.
Robinson was back on the mark with the extras and Gloucester were also back in the game.
There was still time for another Myler penalty, this time for offside, and although Gloucester attacked again, the gap stayed at six points at the break.
A frenetic second half started with Saints on the board first. Despite early pressure from the visitors, Myler's smart turnover set the platform for Dylan Hartley to cross from an Ashton offload.
Gloucester responded quickly with another Robinson penalty but Ashton was involved again to race through gaps in the Gloucester defence for his second and Northampton's third.
The game could have swung once more however when Hartley was sin-binned for killing the ball cynically.
Robinson slotted the simple penalty and although the Saints looked to have held out, Dave Attwood finished a patient Gloucester move just before Hartley returned.
With one score in it, the action moved from end to end but Shane Geraghty, on for Myler, struck a decisive penalty blow to take the Saints two scores clear.
With time up and Gloucester attacking, the Saints turned over and Bruce Reihana raced clear. To the surprise of the whole ground the Kiwi unselfishly popped the ball to Ashton inside the dead ball zone for the winger's hat-trick.
Tries: Ashton 3, Hartley
Con: Myler 3
Pen: Myler 3, Geraghty
Tries: Sharples, Attwood
Con: Robinson 2
Pen: Robinson 3
Northampton: 15 Ben Foden, 14 Chris Ashton, 13 Jon Clarke, 12 James Downey, 11 Bruce Reihana, 10 Stephen Myler, 9 Lee Dickson, 8 Roger Wilson, 7 Phil Dowson, 6 Courtney Lawes, 5 Juandre Kruger, 4 Ignacio Fernandez Lobbe, 3 Euan Murray, 2 Dylan Hartley (capt), 1 Soane Tonga'uiha.
Replacements: 16 Brett Sharman, 17 Regardt Dreyer, 18 Brian Mujati, 19 Mark Easter, 20 Neil Best, 21 Alan Dickens, 22 Shane Geraghty, 23 Joe Ansbro.
Gloucester: 15 Freddie Burns, 14 Charlie Sharples, 13 Jonny May, 12 Mike Tindall (capt), 11 James Simpson-Daniel, 10 Nicky Robinson, 9 Rory Lawson, 8 Adam Eustace, 7 Jake Boer, 6 Alasdair Strokosch, 5 Alex Brown, 4 Dave Attwood, 3 Paul Doran-Jones, 2 Olivier Azam, 1 Nick Wood.
Replacements: 16 Scott Lawson, 17 Alasdair Dickinson, 18 Pierre Capdevielle, 19 Will James, 20 Peter Buxton, 21 Jordi Pasqualin, 22 Olly Morgan.
Referee: Andrew Small