Northampton’s long losing run came to a dramatic end as a penalty try in the final minute at Franklin’s Gardens gave coaching consultant Alan Gaffney a winning start to his temporary tenure.
The Saints’ dismal sequence of seven defeats in the Premiership and 11 overall in the league and Europe had begun at Gloucester on 7 October, and led to the sacking of director of rugby Jim Mallinder a fortnight ago.
Gaffney said pre-match that Alan Dickens would continue to run the Northampton side as head coach alongside assistants Dorian West and Phil Dowson.
But the influence of the incoming Australian, who at 71 years of age has seen everything the game of rugby union has to offer, clearly struck a chord as Saints responded to his simple mantra of: “We’ve just got to work a lot harder.”
Gaffney also threw his hat in the ring for the long-term Northampton vacancy, having led Saracens to semi-finals in the Premiership and European Cup during his two-year stay there a decade ago.
In the here and now, though, Gloucester failed to back up their recent surge as the big improvers of this Premiership season, as they slumped to just their second loss in eight league matches.
“We have to look at our discipline and finish games by winning our set-phase ball,” said Johan Ackermann, the Gloucester boss. “There was pressure on both sides, and all we needed to do was look after our ball at the end – and we didn’t.”
Gaffney said: “We’re absolutely delighted, we talked about working a lot harder and the players definitely did. We changed a couple of things, concentrated on work ethic and we made a few mistakes and conceded a few tries.
“But the boys showed a lot of courage, the monkey’s off the back and we move forward from here.”
Northampton shifted Mallinder’s son Harry to fly-half, with Piers Francis out due to concussion, while Wales wing George North started another four weeks out with a recurrence of his knee injury.
Gloucester’s Owen Williams missed a 38-metre penalty after four minutes, and the Welsh playmaker’s shaky kicking would prove expensive throughout.
Northampton took the lead with a first Premiership try of the season by Ken Pisi, finishing a move of eight phases off Willi Heinz’s box-kick from a Gloucester scrum. But the Saints’ wobbles returned as Gloucester nabbed two tries, either side of a penalty by Mallinder.
Northampton dragged down a driving maul, at the cost of a penalty try and a yellow card to lock Api Ratuniyarawa.
Then home flanker Tom Wood’s vociferous complaint he had been illegally prevented from making a crucial tackle fell on deaf ears as Gloucester hooker James Hanson finished an attack of 13 phases, and Williams added the conversion for a lead of 14-8.
It might have been worse just before half-time when Dylan Hartley, whose form for club and country is always under close scrutiny, deliberately overthrew a three-man defensive line-out in Saints’ 22, only for the ball to bounce free in centre-field, but Gloucester knocked it on.
Northampton suffered another blow when former England centre Luther Burrell was helped off with a serious-looking injury to his left leg.
And in a contentious decision by referee Ian Tempest in the 51st minute, Gloucester flanker Jake Polledri conceded a penalty but no more after he stood on the arm of Campese Ma’afu, who had been holding onto him at a breakdown.
To Northampton’s despair a couple of minutes later, it was Polledri who battered over the gainline from a lineout, and Williams was in support to make a sumptuous pass out of a tackle for 34-year-old prop John Afoa to dot down Gloucester’s third try.
Hartley was replaced by Mikey Haywood with 54 minutes played, and Northampton revived their hopes with a battling try by scrum-half Nic Groom soon afterwards, with Pisi’s work chasing the initial restart as evidence of an improved attitude and workrate among the home players.
Mallinder converted and Northampton trailed by four points with 23 minutes to play.
Williams let Northampton off the hook with a missed penalty after a line-out offence by replacement prop Kieran Brookes, and the kicker was soon trooping off the field disappointed as he was substituted by Billy Twelvetrees.
A spill by Ahsee Tuala in contact took Northampton’s tally of handling errors to 13, to show Gaffney’s arrival had not smoothed all their rough edges overnight, and Gloucester were relieved further still when a scrum penalty allowed Twelvetrees to punt downfield.
So the Franklin’s Gardens crowd was on tenterhooks going into the last 10 minutes, as the majority yearned for a first win in the league and Europe since the visit of Harlequins at the end of September.
There was a pair of huge calls at a scrum on 73 minutes, firstly as the assistant referee identified Brookes slipping his bind and going to ground, then Gloucester showing their confident frame of mind by choosing to kick the resulting penalty to touch in pursuit of the bonus-point try.
But the boldness backfired as Gloucester’s lost a lineout for the first time in the match, with the warhorse Wood making a fantastic, disruptive jump at the front for Northampton.
The nerves ratcheted up another notch as a kick by Mallinder to the corner went wrong, then Gloucester mucked up another line-out, leading to Saints earning a penalty for offside by Henry Trinder on the side of a ruck in the visitors’ 22 with just 100 seconds left on the clock, and the centre was sent to the sin-bin.
Northampton piled forward from the line-out, and as Haywood plunged to claim the winning try, he landed half a metre short and made a second movement to place the ball over the goalline.
The legitimacy or otherwise of Haywood’s surge was immaterial, however, as referee Tempest used the video review to pinpoint Gloucester pulling the maul down, and the award of a penalty try and yellow card to Andy Symons drew a mighty roar of triumph from the home support, mixed with blessed relief.