Northampton Saints took a big step toward this season's Heineken Cup quarter-finals with a well deserved 23-15 victory over Pool 1 rivals Cardiff Blues at Franklin's Gardens.
The hosts scored tries through wingers Paul Diggin and Chris Ashton - with fly-half Stephen Myler enjoying a good outing with the boot to finish with 13 points - and can now end the Blues' European hopes with a result at the Cardiff City Stadium in the return fixture next weekend.
Cardiff were forced to rely on the boot of Scotland pivot Dan Parks for their 15 points as both their scrum and lineout were dismantled by a fired-up Saints pack, throwing further focus on Blues boss Dai Young's midweek criticism of the Premiership leaders' scrummage.
The Blues started with a bang and stretched the Saints with several bursts from their big ball carriers, notably Xavier Rush and Maama Molitika, and their positive intent was rewarded with three points from Parks after the home side had strayed offside.
Cardiff dominated the early possession but lost out to the Saints' fast-improving lineout on two occasions - conceding field position after interventions from Courtney Lawes and Christian Day. After weathering the early storm the home side grew in confidence and worked effective phases of their own inside the Blues' half, bringing their heavy artillery into play as Soane Tonga'uiha, Dylan Hartley and Lawes popped up with important carries.
Their pack also began to enjoy their work when presented with a five-metre scrum following an unplayable ruck, the Blues conceding a mindless penalty. Hartley called for another scrum and the visitors were put under huge pressure. They briefly escaped after the Saints spun the ball wide and lost it in contact but an early engagement at the ensuing scrum saw the ball turned over. Northampton quickly got the ball away from the set-piece and released Diggin along the short-side to score.
Myler converted and the Saints were quickly back on the front-foot as the penalty count got away from the visitors. Their scrum was demolished on another occasion following a knock-on from fullback Chris Czekaj and Molitika was guilty of not releasing, allowing Myler to put his side in position again. Quick hands put James Downey hurtling into space but a forward pass to Hartley was called up as the hooker powered for the line.
A third Cardiff lineout on the Northampton 22 went awry to deny the visitors some much-needed territory but they were able to close the gap to a point with Parks' second penalty. Lawes was the guilty party on that occasion and the England lock was again picked out by the referee prior to Parks giving his side the lead with another three points.
Cardiff poured forward through wing Tom James, whose stepping break was ended ignominiously by a swinging arm from Downey. The Saints centre was sent for 10 minutes in the bin as a result, Parks adding the penalty, but the sides were both reduced to 14 men seconds later as Tau Filise saw yellow for a ruck infringement. Myler kicked the penalty with the final act of the half to leave the Blues with a 12-10 lead.
An early error from Blues skipper Paul Tito opened the door to Northampton seconds after the restart and the Saints showed plenty of patience to punish their opponents. They ground away before Tom Wood fired an expertly-judged pass to Ben Foden, who in turn sent Ashton over untouched in the corner. Myler continued his good form with the boot to add the extras.
Parks then missed a ridiculous shot at goal from well inside his own half and lazy support play left Gethin Jenkins isolated inside the Saints' 22 after the visitors had ever so briefly threatened to find a riposte to their hosts' fired-up start to the half. Northampton continued their impressive spell with three points from Myler after Martyn Williams had piled in at the side.
Cardiff tried in vain to claw their way back into the game but with their lineout still misfiring Northampton kept them at bay with ease. An offside call against Tom Shanklin on his own 22 gave Myler another three points but the Saints then lost Lawes to the sin-bin for the final 10 minutes after one ruck infringement too many. The Blues had earlier been reduced to running a penalty on their opponents' 22 due to their lineout frailties so on this occasion Parks landed his fifth shot at goal to move his side back to within eight.
Despite their man disadvantage it was Northampton who almost struck for the next try, with Ashton uncharacteristically at fault as he spilled a perfectly-judged Myler cross-kick with the line at his mercy. The ensuing scrum resulted in both hookers, Hartley and Gareth Williams, joining Lawes in the sin-bin after a melee and the game was then briefly threatened by a failure in two of Franklin's Gardens' floodlight towers.
Cardiff lit up the closing moments with a length-of-the field break from Czekaj but when the ball was lost forward their chances of a late flourish, and a losing bonus-point, were extinguished.