Castres 19 Northampton Saints 13: Rory Kockott calls the tune as Northampton pay the penalty
It went down to the wire with Castres hanging on and their scrum-half Rory Kockott booting the ball out of play just a couple of seconds after the clock ticked over 80 minutes, but Northampton could only blame themselves for failing to exert the necessary control.
They have played the small-town team of Castres seven times in the Heineken Cup but have only won once away from home. "It was always going to be a bit of a scrap," said Jim Mallinder, the Northampton head coach.
"We had our chances and at least we came away with a losing bonus point but what they did very well was slow us down. I would have been disappointed if we had come away with nothing."
On at least three occasions Northampton chose to kick for touch and the throw-in instead of kicking penalties but Mallinder added: “ We’ll have another look at that but I’ll back my captain Dylan Hartley to make the right decision.” It was Hartley who pounced on a loose ball close to the Castres line for the Northampton try, converted by Steven Myler.
The penalties, in a way, decided it as Kockott banged over four to Stephen Myler's two, and all of them gave rise to criticism. But, then, the Castres crowd does not like the decisions of overseas referees which go against them and, as if to prove that there was equal angst, the outraged cries of the Northampton staff were equally vociferous throughout the afternoon.
Anyone who thought this would be just another steaming dish of bump and grind had to abandon that pre-conception almost from the moment George Clancy blew for the start.
Castres went off at a cracking pace and seemed confident that their big pack could match anything Northampton could throw at them when opting for a scrum at a free-kick and immediately scampering all over the field.
But it was the Midlanders who were edging ahead in the possession statistics and winning a line-out battle previewed extensively in the French media. Courtney Lawes consistently sneaked more line-out ball than Richie Gray. But Gray more than made up for that in the loose. “The focus for us was on our defence and I take confidence from how we performed in that area,” he said. Full-back Geoffrey Palis was outstanding under any and every aerial contest.
"The focus for us was on our defence and I take confidence from how we performed in that area," the Scottish lock said, adding that moving to French rugby had been relatively easy. "This is a close-knit team which makes you feel very welcome."
The first half turned in the ninth minute when Northampton were attacking only for a pass by Luther Burrell to be intercepted by Romain Martial. The 100-yard dash by the winger was cheered every metre of the way and Kockott landed the easy conversion.
The South African scrum-half, who is now eligible to play for France, had a much more difficult task in the 38th minute with a kick from the half-way line. It sailed through in the mild conditions to give the home side a 10-3 lead at half- time, and amply demonstrated why Castres want him to stay and why he is one of a seemingly endless stream of talent said to be in talks with Toulon.
Northampton's three points came from the boot of Myler, banked when they were again attacking despite Ben Foden being in the sin-bin for a deliberate infringement when Castres were threatening the Northampton line. It could have been made even easier for Myler as Piula Faasalele gave Clancy some extended advice.
This was the seventh Heineken encounter between these two with the tally standing at four wins to three in favour of Northampton, just one of those away from home.
Castres surprised not a few by beating Toulon for the French crown at the end of last season and their current 11th place has to be seen in the context of a very tight points difference. Being beaten 34-0 by Brive going into their European season led to a near lockdown in this week's build-up. Next weekend's trip to Leinster will be tough. Northampton's home reception for the Ospreys will be teak hard.
Castres G Palis; R Martial, R Cabannes, R Lamerat, M Evans; R Talês (capt), R Kockott; M Lazar, B Mach (M-A Rallier, 70), A Peikrishvili (Wihongi, 52), R. Gray, R Capo Ortega, JdB Bornman, P Faasalele (P Wannenburg,70), A Claasen.
Northampton B Foden; K Pisi (J Elliott, 65), G Pisi, L Burrell, G. North (J Wilson, 69); S Myler, K Fotualii (L Dickson, 59); A Corbisiero (A Waller, 67), D Hartley (Capt), S Ma'Afu (T Mercey, 59), C Lawes, C Day (P Dowson, 65), T Wood, C Clark, S Dickinson (S Manoa, 59).
Referee G Clancy (Ireland).
Pens: Kockott (4)
Pens: Myler (2)
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