Northampton (10) 23 Tries: Diggin, Ashton Cons: Myler 2 Pens: Myler 3 Cardiff Blues (12) 15 Pens: Parks 5
Ashton's try put Northampton back in front at Franklin's Gardens
By James Standley
Pool Three leaders Northampton had to come from behind as they made it three wins out of three in the Heineken Cup.
A Dan Parks penalty gave the visitors the lead and, although a converted Paul Diggin try put Saints in front, three Parks penalties put the Blues 12-7 up.
A Stephen Myler penalty made it 12-10 at the break, then Saints went in front through Chris Ashton's converted try.
Two more Myler penalties kept the Blues at arm's length, despite a fifth penalty from Parks for the visitors.
Northampton head into next Sunday's return in Cardiff as clear pool leaders with 12 points, three points clear of second-placed Castres, who beat Edinburgh 21-16.
Saints' win was built on their pack's dominance in the scrum and the line-out and, despite a wobble mid-way through the first half as their ill-discipline let the Blues back into the game, the hosts played some fine, controlled rugby.
The visitors lacked nothing in endeavour and produced some good moments of their own, but they were out-gunned in the critical areas as Northampton ensured a chastening day for English clubs ended with at least one win for a team from the Premiership.
The Blues - playing in their pink away strip - started well, taking an early lead through the reliable boot of Scotland fly-half Parks after a pacy early attack earned a penalty.
But Northampton soon hit back and their dominant pack won a series of penalties as they tried to power over from a string of five-metre scrums.
The Blues somehow held out but, when the hosts were awarded another five-metre scrum minutes later, scrum-half Ryan Powell linked with Diggin and the squat winger dived over in the corner.
Myler converted and, with mighty Tongan prop Soane Tongahuia and his fellow front rowers starting to dominate in the scrum, it looked as though there was only one way the game was going to go.
However, with the likes of Gethin Jenkins and Xavier Rush in their side the Blues were never likely to roll over and, when they won possession, they were not afraid to give it a crack.
Twice Courtney Lawes - one of four England players returning to action for Saints for the first time since October - infringed at rucks and twice the ever-reliable boot of Parks drilled the ball between the sticks to give the visitors a 9-7 lead just after the half-hour mark.
Things went from bad to worse for the hosts when James Downey was yellow-carded for a high tackle on electric Blues winger Tom James and Parks once again punished the home side's ill-discipline.
Having looked set to assume total control a poor 10 minutes had put Northampton on the back foot.
However, Blues prop Taufa'ao Filise was promptly binned for playing the ball on the ground at a ruck - possibly harshly - and Myler's penalty meant the hosts only trailed by three points at the interval.
Northampton would have been furious to have been behind as the deficit was largely self-inflicted and came out determined to put matters right in the second half.
They went on the attack immediately and, after hammering away at the Blues line, a wide pass from Tom Wood gave Ben Foden the chance to send fellow England man Ashton cruising over.
Myler converted and this time, unlike in their false dawn of the first half when Diggin crossed, the hosts really were on their way.
With their pack in the ascendency, Myler was content to pin the visitors back in their half with some accurate kicking, and the hosts' stranglehold on the game was rewarded with two more penalties from the fly-half as Saints took a 23-12 lead with 15 minutes to go.
The hosts suffered a minor blow as the otherwise outstanding Lawes once again conceded a penalty at the ruck and was sent to the sin-bin for the closing stages.
Parks landed his fifth penalty to ensure the Blues did not end the half pointless but they had been well beaten.
And, had Ashton not dropped Myler's pin-point kick with the line at his mercy in the closing stages, the eight-point margin of victory would have been closer to the advantage Northampton deserved.
The match ended with both sides shorn of their hookers after a flare-up at a scrum, and played in semi-darkness after a set of floodlights failed.
Northampton rugby director Jim Mallinder: "It wasn't our very best performance but we won a hard-fought game.
"It was a job well done, but probably not a lot better than that. Cardiff are a very good team with some good international players and next week will be a real test of where we are as a team.
"To go down to Cardiff and, if we can get a win there, will be a good sign of our growing maturity."
Cardiff Blues coach Dai Young: "The line-out has got to be put right. We have got to make sure we are accurate.
"The scrum's going to be a battle once again next week so we've got to keep working on it.
"You have got to give Northampton credit. They dominated the second half and played the game in the right areas."
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