Saints bid to show progress as they return to scene of record Premiership defeat

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On Friday, March 3, 2023, Sam Graham stood on the Ashton Gate pitch and fronted up to the media after a humbling night for Saints.

The black, green and gold had been handed their record Premiership defeat as they were eviscerated by Bristol Bears.

The home side displayed their bite to devastating effect as they ripped Saints apart in a 62-8 demolition.

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It was a sobering day for everyone of a Northampton persuasion and posed plenty of questions about the team and, in particular, its resilience, or lack of.

Sam Graham and Saints endured a difficult night at Ashton Gate last March (photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)Sam Graham and Saints endured a difficult night at Ashton Gate last March (photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)
Sam Graham and Saints endured a difficult night at Ashton Gate last March (photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

The following summer would see defence coach Ian Vass depart, with Lee Radford drafted in as his replacement.

And in the year that has followed that Bristol battering, there have certainly been huge strides forward from Saints.

They return to Ashton Gate on Friday night sitting seven points clear at the top of the Premiership.

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And when asked to reflect on the progress his side has made, Graham was able to provide a much happier assessment.

"I did media before and after that Bristol game last year," Graham said. "What we've built since then has come from a lot of hard work, especially defensively, which was a big work-on from that night, judging by the scoreline.

"The sad thing was that we only got a couple of things slightly wrong but we got punished because they're a really good team.

"It's a really good lesson for us coming into this run of games, where we've got seven games guaranteed into the finish and hopefully more to come.

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"If we can keep turning up defensively then I think we'll be in a good place."

Bristol won 33-27 at cinch Stadium at Franklin's Gardens back in October, taking advantage of a depleted Saints side.

And the Bears also beat Phil Dowson's men in the Premiership Rugby Cup pool stages, earning a last-gasp 39-38 success in September.

So they have certainly had the Indian sign over Saints in recent times.

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"They're a team who possibly haven't been where they wanted to but, going into the break, they were really able to get some results under their belt," Graham said.

"They showed some of their quality so it's a game we're really looking forward to.

"They've got a good attacking team and our defence can hopefully come to the fore this week."

Graham knows this is a chance for Saints to show how far they have come since that Bears mauling on almost the same date last year.

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"It's not far off 12 months apart so it will be good to see where we are and how much a year has changed us as a group," he said.

Saints haven't played a competitive match since beating Newcastle Falcons on January 27.

They have used the past two weeks to warm up for the Bristol clash, taking on DHL Stormers and Sale Sharks at the Gardens.

Stormers won 45-29 against Saints, who then bounced back to beat Sale 24-10 last Friday.

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And Graham said: "The past couple of weeks have just stepped up in intensity.

"After we came off the break, everyone was buzzing to get back into it and with there being a game at the end of the past two weeks, the intensity goes up.

"We blew away some of the cobwebs in the Stormers week and last Friday we put together a performance that we can really build on going into this week.

"There's lots of excitement and fingers crossed."

Graham, like Saints, has really taken his game to a new level this season.

"I hope I can continue that," said the No.8.

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"Personally, I've been really enjoying my time on the pitch.

"Every minute I've had, I've tried to savour and hopefully continue the run.

"But it's a competitive back row and everyone's fit and available so I've got to keep doing what I can do and hopefully I'm in the team come the end of the week."