Northampton Saints claimed the first leg of a potential domestic and European treble with a 30-24 victory over Gloucester in a pulsating Anglo-Welsh Cup final clash at Sixways.
The Saints, who are also pushing for honours in the Guinness Premiership and the Heineken Cup, produced an impressive all-round display to inflict more big match misery on the Cherry and Whites who suffered a crushing 50-12 loss to Cardiff Blues in last season's final. Aside from the demoralising result there was little similarity to that Twickenham showpiece, with a small crowd of just over 9,000 filling the home of Worcester Warriors to two-thirds of its capacity.
The travelling Saints contingent were not worried about the relative success of the scaled-down tournament and were in fine voice as their side continued a fantastic season. With Chris Ashton, Ben Foden and Dylan Hartley away on England duty and Euan Murray with Scotland, director of rugby Jim Mallinder was forced to field Shane Geraghty at fullback while Paul Diggin made his 100th Saints appearance in place of Ashton on the wing.
Rampaging prop Soane Tonga'uiha, centre James Downey and scrum-half Lee Dickson pounced for tries for the Saints, who started slowly but grew in confidence as the afternoon wore on. Gloucester had earlier forged ahead thanks to a well-taken try by flanker Akapusi Qera and were rewarded for a dominant display at the scrum with a second-half penalty try. Gloucester pivot Nick Robinson, a winner with Cardiff in 2009, kicked 14 points but was upstaged by Stephen Myler, who collected 15.
Saints openside Neil Best, on his future home ground, was the first to find space, sniping through a gap in the Gloucester midfield before being shackled. Both sides relied heavily on the boot in the early stages but Robinson, Myler and Geraghty were guilty of some aimless punts that did little more than test the neck muscles of the assembled fans.
The Gloucester fans came to life with the appearance of Mike Tindall, fresh from action with England in Paris, as waterboy and Robinson gave them more to cheer about by curling in the opening points. Infuriatingly for Bryan Redpath and his coaching team Gloucester handed the points back to Northampton immediately after the restart, Myler sending a hanging penalty through the uprights.
Roger Wilson took the baton on from his back-row colleague Best with a powerful half-break in midfield to secure a second penalty in quick succession for Myler. However, Saints lock Courtney Lawes felt the wrath of referee Alan Lewis from the restart and Robinson converted a long kick from straight in front.
Robinson's third penalty rewarded some strong running in midfield by Qera and confirmed the balance of the opening exchanges, with Gloucester more threatening in possession. The Cherry and Whites' pack flexed their muscles with a powerful maul deep inside Saints' territory and Robinson scythed through in midfield, jinking past two tackles and keeping the ball alive for Rory Lawson. The Saints did their best to slow the ball but Olivier Azam was able to put Qera over in the corner.
Robinson missed the conversion, a mistake not made by Myler moments later following an emphatic response by his side. From a loose kick Geraghty attacked the space, his pack providing the support. Lewis signalled a penalty as Gloucester flooded the breakdown but Brett Sharman plucked the ball from the ruck and powered on, his front-row partner Tonga'uiha on hand to barrel over following a well-judged offload.
The Saints kept the pressure on as Lawes burst clear from a Gloucester knock-on, Reihana and Mujati carrying on the movement with brilliant support angles. Gloucester again infringed on the floor but Downey was alive to the opportunity out wide, cutting back against the grain and stepping his way to the try-line for a 20-14 half-time lead.
The early pressure in the second-half was from Gloucester and their efforts produced a penalty try. Having disrupted a lineout following a charged-down Myler kick, they went for an eight-man shove at the scrum. The Saints had been well watched and frequently called up at the scrum by Lewis and as the front-rows hit the deck there was no hesitation from the referee.
Again the response was immediate from Northampton. This time it was Dickson who breached the Gloucester defence, pouncing on a bobbling ball and crashing over after the Saints had bravely taken an attacking scrum from a free-kick close to the opposition line. Robinson had Northampton's pulses racing as he stepped around the cover defence close to the line and reached out, only to be denied by the TMO. Gloucester battered away at the door from the ensuing scrum but Saints dug in for multiple phases, winning a pressure-relieving penalty.
The Saints fans rose to their feet to roar Tonga'uiha on after the loosehead pounced for an interception, the prop's legs giving out but not before Juandre Kruger had appeared in support. With Gloucester at sixes and sevens the Saints conspired to waste the chance as Mujati was forced out after a Geraghty offload.
A Myler penalty pushed Northampton's lead out to nine but Robinson bit back almost immediately with a three-pointer of his own. Gloucester wasted three golden opportunities after being awarded penalties, with Robinson missing touch on one occasion, and the Saints were able to grind out the final moments before the referee's whistle was greeted with a roar from the green, gold and black.