The Ospreys scored six tries as to secure a bonus point win on a crazy evening at Franklin’s Gardens, ending the game with 13 men as they held off a late Northampton rally.
Leading 17-3 at the break thanks to tries from record breaker Dan Evans and Tom Habberfield, they blew Saints away in the third quarter as Evans again, Jeff Hassler (2) and Kieron Fonotia crossed to give the Ospreys a 35-point lead.
However, a crazy game swung the other way as Saints then ran in four tries of their own to bring themselves back to within 11 points with just eight minutes remaining.
Having lost Hassler to a yellow card in the first half, the Ospreys were reduced to 14 again in the final 10 minutes, Rob McCusker and Northampton’s Harry Mallinder sin binned for fighting in the aftermath of the hosts final try of the match. Then, with three to go, Hanno Dirksen was shown red for a high tackle on Juan Pablo Estelles.
The visitors held on for a deserved win, despite going into the game missing 17 players through injury, that keeps their European hopes well and truly alive at the halfway point of the group stages.
There was little sign of the drama to come in an even if uneventful opening quarter of an hour that saw the Saints open the scoring, Stephen Myler with a simple three points from in front of the posts after an Ospreys offside.
That penalty had been the fifth given against the Ospreys in quick succession, and had led to a team warning from referee Alexandre Ruiz, so when Jeff Hassler was penalised at the restart there was an inevitability about what followed, the Canadian sent to the sidelines for 10 minutes.
The response from the Ospreys was a positive one however and, with 20 minutes on the clock the score was level, Sam Davies with an equally simple three points, Courtney Lawes caught playing the ball on the floor.
The Ospreys were enjoying the better of the scrum battle and it was a series of penalties at the set piece that allowed the Ospreys to not only run down the 10 minute singing but to actually take the lead in the final play before Hassler returned.
It was a well-worked move from a scrum five metres out that saw Evans hitting the line at speed and side stepping the tackler to go over for his 29th try in Ospreys colours.
Davies added the extras and the Ospreys held a seven-point advantage as they were restored to their full numbers.
It remained a keenly contested affair, Saints huffing and puffing and the Ospreys aggressive defence frustrating the English side, and the home crowd were stunned into silence when the Ospreys extended their lead in the 38th minute with a stunning score finished off by Habberfield.
Owen Watkin had provided the initial spark, breaking from inside his own half, but it was Kieron Fonotia’s quick hands in midfield that released Hassler up the right, He evaded the despairing tackle attempt from David Ribbans before slipping the inside pass to his scrum half who raced over for the try, converted by Davies.
There was still time left in the first half for the Ospreys to play themselves into trouble, putting the ball out on the full after taking it back into the 22 but the Saints were unable to breach their resolute defence and the visitors headed back down the tunnel with a 14-pont lead.
HALF-TIME: NORTHAMPTON SAINTS 3-17 OSPREYS
The Ospreys thought they’d made the perfect start to the second half, adding try number three inside two minutes after Sam Davies did a good job of spoiling at the ruck, allowing Alun Wyn Jones to pick up the loose ball and charge more than 40m upfield to dab down.
However, it was referred upstairs to the TMO, originally on suspicion of a knock-on by Davies. Although that wasn’t the case, the decision eventually went against the Ospreys for an apparent offside.
The try did come just a couple of minutes later though, the defence doing a great job to frustrate the Saints, Bradley Davies winning a great turnover on his own 10m line, stripping the ball and sending it left quickly where the Ospreys had men over.
Watkin and Sam Davies carried, the final pass timed perfectly for Hassler to race clear for his second of the night, Davies again with the extras.
It got even better shortly after, the fourth try and bonus point in the bag inside 50 minutes as Evans cut a great line to take the ball from Davies before slipping it to Fonotia and there was no stopping the centre from 10m.
Davies maintained his perfect record from the tee and the scoreboard now read Saints 3-31 Ospreys.
Northampton served notice that they weren’t going to throw the towel in, forcing their way over from a lineout on the Ospreys right five minutes later, Dylan Hartley getting the ball down at the back of the maul for an unconverted try.
Within a couple of minutes the home team were back behind their own line as the Ospreys scored try number five, a second for Evans, after the Saints were guilty of overdoing it, trying to play the ball out of defence only to lose the ball five metres out from the line.
Dirksen mugged Mallinder to claim the loose ball and within seconds Evans was over, Davies with another good conversion. It was the fullback’s 30th try for the Ospreys, moving him up to sixth in the all-time list, overtaking Sonny Parker.
On the hour mark Hassler crashed over for his second, rounding off a counter from half way that saw James Hook and Watkin carrying well, the Canadian finish it off in the corner. For the first time tonight Davies was off target with the conversion attempt, but with 20 minutes to play the Ospreys led 43-8.
The game looked over as a contest at this point, many of the home crowd taking the Ospreys’ sixth try of the night as their cue to depart.
However the Saints came storming back and grabbed their second try of the night, scrum half Nic Groom going down the blindside from a lineout drive and beating Habberfield to score in the corner.
Harry Mallinder was off target with his conversion but a dust-up by the corner flag in the aftermath of the try meant that the Saints were awarded a penalty at the restart, allowing them to pin the Ospreys back on their line.
They duly turned that pressure into try number three, TMO Eric Briquet Campin and referee Monsieur Ruiz ruling Rob Horne’s score good, the centre touching the ball against the base of the post after Nicky Smith had dislodged the ball in the tackle.
Mallinder converted, as he did minutes later when the Saints secured their own try bonus as an incredible contest continued to entertain, Ahsee Tuala racing over from 30m out after the hosts had broken from inside their 22.
The conversion meant the score was now 27-43 with12 minutes to play.
Then an Incredible passage of play summed up the evening, the Ospreys winning turnover ball on the Saints 22, only for a loose pass from Watkin conceding possession with a two man overlap and a certain Ospreys try seemingly the only outcome. Mallender broke, carrying the length of the field as he ignored the support to score.
Both sets of players came together behind the line once again and after a lengthy review of the footage, Mallender was prevented from taking the conversion as he and McCusker were both shown yellow cards.
Cobus Reinach stepped up to go for goal but he struck the outside of the left hand post, which meant the Ospreys led by 11 points with eight minutes remaining.
The final tense minutes saw Northampton pressing and the Ospreys were reduced to 13 for the closing minutes following Dirksen’s dangerous tackle. There were to be no further scares though, a Rowan Jenkins turnover relieving the pressure as the Ospreys kept the pressure on the top two in the pool, Saracens and Clermont Auvergne.
Northampton now visit the Liberty on Sunday 17th December at 3.15pm, with tickets available at www.ospreysrugby.com/buytickets now.