Northampton's attempt to repeat their European feats of last season, when they reached the final and came close to beating Leinster at the Millennium Stadium, stuttered alarmingly in the first two rounds of the Heineken Cup. Yesterday, it was brutally extinguished in France.
This Saints performance featured extravagant ambition, incredible immaturity and rank indiscipline, which saw them play for 20 minutes (in two 10-minute spells) with 14 men. Their director of rugby, Jim Mallinder, will take some solace from the considerable enterprise that his side showed against a Castres team who had not won a game for nearly two months, but he will know that Northampton probably committed more errors in this game than in the whole of last season.
"This was always going to be a big challenge and it is always going to be hard to defend for 20 minutes with 14 men," said Mallinder, who has been linked with the England head coach's job since the World Cup. "It was too much for us, but I was happy with our attacking play. We obviously have work to do on our set piece and particularly our re-starts, which were a problem for us all game."
This was a performance that summed up Northampton's season so far. As such, the defeat may well be the defining moment for the club.
In earlier rounds of Heineken games this season, Saints, like Castres, had lost to Munster thanks to a last-second drop-goal from Ronan O'Gara. But it was the English club's surprise defeat by the Scarlets at Franklin's Gardens that set alarm bells ringing. Their trip to France therefore presented a chance for redemption and an opportunityto put their European campaign back on track.
Castres lived up to the stereotype of a French club – having been woeful on the road, they were almost irresistible in their own back yard. Their pace and power, combined with no little skill, proved too much.
Saints came off second best in the physical battle and, though their attacking flair and pace kept them in the game, they could not have made a worse start. Castres scored their first try in four games after three minutes as the impressive open side flanker Steve Malonga finished off a sweeping attacking move. Northampton replied with a forward surge and the lock Mark Sorenson burrowed over. The fly-half, Stephen Myler, converted to level the scores. Castres' full-back, Romain Teulet, put his side back ahead with two penalties, before the Aviva Premiership side rallied with a try by the wing Jamie Elliott.
Myler then found himself on the wrong side of the referee when he was sent to the sin-bin for a second high-tackle, just before half-time. Saints, down to 14 men, conceded a second try almost immediately, after a delightful chip by Castres' former All Black No 8, Chris Masoe, put the wing Romain Martial in at the corner. That made it 23-12 to Castres at half-time.
It was the Saints who scored next. Elliott's second try saw the teenager run in from inside his own half, after he intercepted Martial's pass. Teulet kicked another penalty before Saints' American No 8, Samu Manoa reduced the gap to four when he scored his side's fourth try. That secured a bonus point, midway through the second half.
But a yellow card for the flanker Tom Wood, given for an offence at a maul, proved costly. Saints could not cope and Martial and the flanker Ibrahim Diarra took full advantage, crossing for tries to record a bonus point and an emphatic victory.
Mallinder said: "When you have two yellow cards you have to ask why. I don't want to question the referees but we have had the same problem against Munster and we have to look at why. The yellow card for Steve Myler and a high tackle was a close one but we just aren't getting those decisions at the moment. We are out of the competition and that is hard and we are playing for pride now."
Castres: R Teulet; R Martial, T Sanchou (P Bonnefound, 75), S Bai, M Evans; R Tales (P Bernard, 27), R Kockott (T Lacrampe, 71); M Coetzee (A Peikrishvili, 59), M Rallier (M Bonelli, 57), L Ducalcon (R Kruger, 78), S Murray, R Capo-Ortega (M Rolland, 67) I Diarra, S Malonga, C Masoe.
Northampton Saints: B Foden; V Artemyev, G Pisi, T May (J Clarke, 67), J Elliott; S Myler (R Lamb, 57), L Dickson (M Roberts, 67); S Tonga'uiha (A Waller, 61), D Hartley (capt; M Haywood, 67), P Doran Jones (T Mercey, 72), C Lawes (J Craig, 69), M Sorenson, T Wood (J Ingle, 79), B Nutley, S Manoa.
Referee: J Lacey (Ireland).