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Mitchell runs show as Northampton condemn Bristol to latest loss

By PA
(Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Alex Mitchell ran the show as Northampton condemned Bristol to a fourth successive Gallagher Premiership defeat by winning 45-31 at Franklin’s Gardens. Scrum-half Mitchell, who has been overlooked by England head coach Eddie Jones for the Autumn Nations Series, sparked a first-half try blitz by crossing twice in six minutes.

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Wing Ollie Sleightholme and lock Lukhan Salakaia-Loto followed suit before the break as Northampton secured a bonus point after just 32 minutes. Matt Proctor added a fifth early in the second period, with debutant fly-half Fin Smith kicking five conversions and a penalty as he impressed following his arrival from Worcester.

Bristol led through a fourth-minute Harry Thacker try that Callum Sheedy converted, but they had no answer to Saints’ all-court game when it clicked and was supremely marshalled by Mitchell. The visitors performed much better in the second half as Sheedy converted his own 53rd-minute try and flanker Magnus Bradbury also scored.

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Thacker then crossed for his second try that AJ MacGinty converted, securing a losing bonus, and MacGinty then claimed a fifth Bristol try during the closing seconds, but Saints were never seriously threatened.

James Grayson converted his own late try for the home side, with Northampton following Newcastle, Exeter and Gloucester in piling Premiership misery on Pat Lam’s team, who have not won in the league since toppling London Irish five weeks ago.

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Northampton boss Phil Dowson made eight changes from the team beaten by Bath last weekend, including a debut for Smith, full-back George Hendy making a first Premiership start and flanker Aaron Hinkley also featuring. Sam Lewis was handed a start in the back row for Bristol, with former Wasps scrum-half Will Porter and ex-Worcester prop Jay Tyack on the replacements’ bench.

Bristol burst out of the blocks and took a fourth-minute lead when Thacker rounded off an imposing driving maul from five metres out, with Sheedy converting. It was a powerful and purposeful opening by the visitors, and the Northampton were resigned to some big defensive sets before exerting pressure inside the Bristol half.

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Just when they needed a flash of inspiration, it arrived courtesy of the livewire Mitchell, whose pace took him clear to claim a fine solo try that Smith converted. Mitchell was at it again just six minutes later, capitalising on centre Rory Hutchinson’s sharp break to score his second try, with Smith’s conversion opening up a seven-point lead.

An unsettling period for Bristol saw bloodied full-back Charles Piutau leave the action, while skipper Joe Joyce also went off, being replaced by Chris Vui, who made his 100th Bristol appearance. Smith, looking calm and assured, booted a 45-metre penalty to extend Saints’ lead before Bristol were run ragged, conceding two further tries during a three-minute spell.

Sleightholme scored the first following captain Fraser Dingwall’s defence-splitting pass before Salakaia-Loto touched down following a brilliant move sparked by Hutchinson. Smith converted both scores, and Northampton were out of sight with a bonus point in the bag, leading 31-7 and giving Bristol a second-half mountain to climb.

The visitors had to score first to give themselves any hope, but Saints struck just four minutes after the restart as Proctor had an unopposed run-in and Smith converted. Sheedy’s interception try, which he converted, was followed by Bradbury collecting a third Bristol try, although referee Hamish Smales awarded it despite the Scotland international’s foot appearing to have grazed the touchline as he dived over.

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Saints were rattled when Thacker scored again, but they regained their composure through a Grayson try and conversion that finally stalled Bristol’s revival, even though MacGinty had the last word after Northampton flanker Sam Graham was sin-binned.

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