They came with everyone saying they could suffer a thrashing from last year's Heineken Cup runners-up, but an injury-torn Northampton, also missing a suspended Carlos Spencer, came away from Biarritz yesterday with some positives to savour and the hope of their group campaign bearing fruit.
Despite shirt-sleeve warmth under an already watery southern French sky, the Northampton plan was to rain as hard as possible on any ideas the Basques may have had to turn the match into some sort of carnival parade. They did not manage that, but neither was the opposition, which is suffering its own periods of self-doubt, in festival form. Once the French side had their bonus point fourth try, a power drive with the captain and hooker Benoit August underneath it four minutes into the second half, they opted for the shade and allowed the Saints to attack them, and played the last 20 minutes in their own half.
The early work by the Biarritz backs was, at times, dazzling. The left wing Sireli Bobo grabbed two tries and the flanker Mohamed Dridi - Biarritz were without Thomas Lievremont and Imanol Harinordoquy - powered in for the third.
With no recognised kicker, Saints' left wing Johnny Howard took over the duties and scored one from three penalties in the first half. He then touched down their only try, from a kick by Ian Vass, and converted it from touch.
While Ben Cohen failed a late fitness test and the sanatorium is still far too busy, Steve Thompson played a full 80 minutes and the next encounter, at home against Border Rievers, looks positively enticing.
But, no wonder the Northampton coach Paul Grayson looks with some envy at the freedom from things like salary caps which the French enjoy. It is not that players' wages would necessarily go up; it is that the number of players in the squad would and, with that, the ability to cope with injuries when playing in three competitions at once - the Premiership, Anglo-Welsh and Europe - and satisfying national sides' training and game demands.
This, he says, makes it ever harder for an English club to win what he regards as "the flagship club event in the world. There is no question it is better than any other club event". But, he adds: "If you are a successful club like Northampton, which is making a profit, why shouldn't we have the right to use that money as we see fit?"
Biarritz: Tries Bobo 2, Dridi, August. Conversion Yachvili. Northampton Try Howard. Conversion Howard. Penalty Howard.
Biarritz: N Brusque; J-B Gobelet, R Cabannes, D Traille, S Bobo; J Peyrelongue, D Yachvili; P Balan (K Lealamanua, 56), B August (captain), D Avril (H Wessels, 64), J Thion, D Couzinet (S Dellape, 64), S Betsen, M Dridi, B Noirot (S Padro, 68).
Northampton: R Laird; S Lamont, C Wyles, D Quinlan, J Howard; L Myring (I Vass, 59), M Robinson; T Smith, S Thompson, P Barnard, Damien Browne, D Gerard, P Tupai (M Easter, 61), D Fox (captain), Daniel Browne.
Referee: M Changleng (Scotland).Reuse content