The Reds continued their winning start to the season, but following their Coastal Cup win in Canada last week this was a taste of reality at Franklin's Gardens last night.

Only when the European champions rang the changes to test their squad's strength in the second half did the visitors get a real foothold.

Reds coach Richie Dixon, not unreasonably, pointed out, however, that his men had not been at full strength and that they had overcome a fearsome challenge of their own making with their scheduling.

''We got caught cold in the early stages, having just returned from Canada then travelled down by bus today, but, last season, if we had gone 20 points down like that, we would have been heavily beaten,'' Dixon said afterwards.

''However, we didn't shirk it this time. The biggest things I take out of this are that there were signs they are developing the mental toughness necessary to make difficult trips and still perform, and that they are learning to play as a team and trust one another.''

For Scots, if not those involved with the Reds, one of the most welcome sights was that of Budge Pountney driving headlong at opponents inside the first minute, indicating he has fully recovered from the nasal surgery he underwent during the close season.

Opposing flanker Gareth Flockhart, meanwhile, made a much less encouraging start when he was sin-binned.

Moments later, Paul Grayson claimed the lead with a penalty before his captain, Pat Lam, made a clean break inside the Reds half, fending off a cover attempt from the normally reliable tackler that is Ian Jardine on his way to the line.

Pountney was extremely influential as Saints took control, stepping easily out of Rowen Shepherd's attempted tackle to initiate the move that ended with centre Matt Allen strolling over on the left for the easiest of scores, then carving the defence open to create a score for Allan Bateman.

At last, the Reds responded. Jason White made deep inroads from a quickly taken penalty, and when the recycled ball was shifted left, Roland Reid - a surprise early replacement for Shaun Longstaff - took it at pace to defeat Bateman's challenge and charge clean through.

The Reds found the going easier with Northampton having made seven changes at half-time, and, after Jon Petrie recovered a weak clearance and took play back up, Chalmers well-timed release saw Craig hit the gain-line at pace and race away from the cover.

After another powerful drive by White, Chalmers again provided the link, his deft pass putting Flockhart under the posts for a try converted by Shepherd.

A Grayson penalty extended Saints' advantage, but the Reds took the lead through Reid again.

Another superbly judged Beveridge break opened Saints up again, Shepherd appearing on his shoulder at the perfect moment before stepping past the last man for a try, which McKenzie converted.

Luca Martin ensured a rousing finish, slicing through the defence for a well received debut try, converted by Grayson, but the Reds had done just enough.

Northampton Saints - M Tucker; C Moir, A Bateman, M Allen, L Martin; P Grayson, D Malone; G Pagel, S Thompson, M Scelzo, T Rodber, O Brouzet, G Seely, B Pountney, P Lam. Substitutes used - M Stewart, S Brotherstone, J Phillips, R Hunter, A Rennick, J Bamhall, S Webster, I Vass, M Soden, T Kirk.

Reds - T Hayes; J Craig, R Shepherd, I Jardine, S Longstaff; C Chalmers, G Beveridge; D Hilton, G Bulloch, G McIlwham, S Griffiths, J White, G Flockhart, D Macfadyen, J Petrie. Substitutes used - R Reid, M McKenzie, D Burns.

nSCOTLAND play South Africa tonight at L'Aquila with a place in the final of the Student World Cup the prize for the winner, writes Alan Lorimer.

For the losers, there is what is always an unsatisfactory conclusion to a tournament, the third and fourth-place play-off.

Scotland - G Lawson; C Keenan, A Henderson, M Duncan, J Steel; B Irving, C Black; C Reid, di Ciacca, G Tallac, G McCallum, G Perrett, A Dall, G Hayter (captain) O Brown Replacements - C Doherty, B Prescott, A Ness, A Brown, R Couper, C Laidlaw, R Sharples.