Northampton Saints strengthened their grip at the top of the Aviva Premiership table with a 35-23 bonus point victory over London Irish at Franklin's Gardens.
Two tries from winger Paul Diggin and others from rising star Jamie Elliott and centre Jon Clarke powered the league leaders to their eighth win of the campaign with an assured performance from fly-half Stephen Myler helping to sweep their title rivals aside in emphatic style. Second half tries from Chris Hala'ufia and Topsy Ojo enabled Irish to add a little respectability to the scoreboard but the game was virtually over as a contest by half-time.
The hosts were without their England quartet - fullback Ben Foden, winger Chris Ashton, lock Courtney Lawes and hooker Dylan Hartley - as well as Scotland international centre Joe Ansbro but there was little sign of a void with loose-head Soane Tonga'uiha leading the charge with a man of the match display.
Irish began the game strongly and carved out the first opening with less than a minute on the clock. Saints attempted to clear their lines having secured the kick off but Myler's clearance was charged down and the visitors pounced for the opening score with Lamb slotting a neat drop goal. And the Exiles' fly-half doubled his side's lead a couple of minutes later with another well taken kick with his side's attempts to build an early lead greeted by boos from the home crowd.
The Saints rallied immediately and a strong run from Elliott resulted in Myler's first penalty that Lamb looked to cancel out with another drop goal but this time his effort sailed wide of the posts. In a bold statement of intent the home side opted to kick for the lineout when awarded their next penalty and it looked like their gamble had paid off when a great drive from lock Christian Day split the Irish defence but the ball was lost forward in the act of scoring.
But they would not be denied with Elliott sniping up the short side after a clever pass from the ever-influential Tonga'uiha. The 18-year-old winger was hauled down by Hala'ufia but the force of his tackle almost threw his opponent over the line. Tempers flared as Saints turned the screw at the scrum before the ball as worked one way and then the other to Elliott who rode the tackle of Irish's Jonathan Joseph and Paul Hodgson to squeeze home in the corner.
Myler's excellent conversion cemented his side's lead and there was soon more joy for the home side. Irish fullback Delon Armitage looked to inspire a swift riposte but the ball was turned over by Saints hooker Brett Sharman on his own 22 before he kicked ahead into space. Winger Diggin then won the race to the ball before hacking on and claiming his side's second try in as many minutes. Myler was on target once more with the conversion and although Lamb pulled three points back for Irish with his first penalty of the night it was not enough to stem the tide. Hodgson was then forced to deliberately knock the ball into touch to deny Saints' on-rushing fullback Greig Tonks a try but there was further woe when Myler slotted the resulting penalty.
A good break from centre Elvis Seveali'I offered Irish some hope but more often than not their efforts to redress the balance were frustrated by some excellent defence and their own mistakes. And they were punished for their shortcomings in emphatic style with the Saints notching third try just before the break. Tonga'uiha did the initial damage and sucked in three defenders before Clarke scythed through at pace. The Saints centre then evaded the tackle of Hodgson before stepping Armitage and speeding away for the score that was converted by Myler with the last kick of the half.
Northampton picked up where they left off following the re-start with scrum-half Ryan Powell tackled just short of the line by his opposite number and while Irish worked hard to shackle their hosts they could muster precious little momentum of their own.
The inevitable bonus point try came just short of the hour mark with a solid scrum deep in Irish's half laying the platform. No.8 Roger Wilson lured Hodgson into contact before flipping the ball to Powell who drew the tackle of Irish wing Topsy Ojo before feeding Diggin for a simple score in the corner. Myler drew gasps when he missed his latest shot at goal but the game was all but won with a quarter the match remaining.
A raft of replacements enabled Irish to get a foothold back in the game and after a nasty-looking injury to Diggin caused a lengthy delay they showed signs of life with Hala'ufia driving into the heart of the Saints defence before stretching to score his side's first try. Lamb added the extras and there was further cause for hope when Ojo snaffled the ball on half way before beating Elliott in a foot race for the line. Lamb's conversion brought Irish to within nine points but a late penalty from replacement fly-half Shane Geraghty set the seal on a well-deserved victory for the home side.