Saints squander chance of win as Bristol strike twice late on
Saints suffered late heartache at the hands of Bristol Bears yet again as the game unravelled spectacularly at Franklin's Gardens on Sunday afternoon.
Chris Boyd's side, who had lost to the final kick of the game at Ashton Gate in December, were beaten 28-21, having led 21-14 with five minutes of the match to play.
Saints took off the impressive James Grayson with 20 minutes to go and his replacement, Harry Mallinder, missed a penalty he would have expected to make.
That would have given Saints a 10-point lead late on, but Bristol were buoyed by the miss and came roaring back, scoring two tries in as many minutes, through Luke Morahan and Andy Uren.
It was a huge blow for the black, green and gold, who had put a huge amount of effort in against the current Gallagher Premiership leaders.
Saints had a chance to make early inroads in the game after a superb pass from Tom James put pressure on Bristol out wide, and the away side conceded a penalty.
Saints went to the corner, but they squandered their opportunity and soon had to do some huge defensive work on their own line, with Teimana Harrison earning a big penalty.
There was plenty of huff and puff, with Saints putting real pressure on Bristol scrum-half Uren.
The hosts were trying to piece moves together and after Matt Proctor kicked ahead from a flowing surge forward, Tommy Freeman was just beaten to the ball across the try-line.
But it would be Bristol who scored first as Henry Purdy spotted a gap, ran a good support line and finished superbly.
Tiff Eden added the extras and Saints were 7-0 down with 26 minutes played.
And it was soon an even bigger deficit as Bristol camped on the home line again and eventually Siva Naulago went over.
Eden kicked the conversion to make it 14-0 and it was already looking a long way back for Saints.
The hosts desperately needed something to shout about before half-time, and with a penalty coming, they got it.
Grayson sent a superb long pass out wide and Nick Isiekwe was there to gather and dive over in the corner.
Grayson converted impressively from the touchline to reduce Bristol's lead to seven points and breathe new life into Saints' victory bid.
And Grayson added another three points to the tally early in the second half, with the Bears giving away a string of penalties under pressure inside their own 22.
Bristol tried to respond with a big break from Naulago, but Saints eventually got hold of him and managed to clear their lines.
And after a run down the right from Proctor, Saints won a penalty for obstruction, allowing Grayson to cut the gap to just a single point with another lovely effort from the tee.
Saints' hopes were rising and they got real reward for their efforts when Freeman chipped ahead and the ball bounced perfectly for the onrushing George Furbank to gather and score.
Grayson missed the conversion but Saints were ahead for the first time, having recovered from going 14-0 down during the first half.
Grayson was in the thick of the action and after he was tripped, he picked himself up to slot a penalty that made it 21-14 to Saints.
It was to be Grayson's final act as Mallinder came on for the fly-half with 20 minutes to go.
Mallinder had a chance to secure some points almost immediately as good pressure from Piers Francis earned a penalty, but the kick was surprisingly missed.
Bristol were eager to take advantage and only an inaccurate pass from Sam Bedlow stopped them from scoring out wide.
Still they came though, and after Morahan scored in the corner, Bedlow slotted a conversion superbly from the touchline.
If that wasn't bad enough, it was to get worse almost immediately for Saints as they made a complete mess of the restart.
Bristol gathered and Uren was sent away, racing under the posts to bag his team the lead and the bonus point.
Bedlow easily added the conversion to make it 28-21 and Saints had just two minutes to save the game.
But it wasn't to be as they were left to reflect on what might have been following the craziest of conclusions.
Saints: Furbank; Proctor (Francis 57), Dingwall, Hutchinson, Freeman; Grayson (Mallinder 61), James; Waller (c) (Auterac 54), Matavesi (Haywood 54), Hill (Painter 54); Coles, Ratuniyarawa (Moon 68); Isiekwe, Wood, Harrison (Tonks 73).
Bristol Bears: Purdy; Adeolokun, O'Conor, Leiua, Naulago; Eden (Bedlow 57), Uren; Thomas (Woolmore 57), Byrne (Capon 57), Afoa (Lahiff 63); Joyce (Holmes 69), Vui; Luatua (c), Thomas, Hughes (Harding 50).
Referee: Tom Foley