Northampton carried the flag for England in last season's Heineken Cup, although they did not carry it terribly far before running into an inspired Munster at the quarter-final stage.
On last night's evidence, they will have to work overtime to reach the knock-out stage of this year's tournament, especially if they continue to treat goal-kicking as an optional extra rather than an essential. They just about squeezed past Castres, but the only a one-eyed optimist would pin his hopes on this kind of performance.
As ever with a French club of the middle rank, it was unclear before kick-off whether Castres would take the game completely seriously – that is to say, put their shoulders to the wheel in defence – or merely flatter to deceive. They had, after all, travelled without the prolific Romain Teulet and confined two of their best attacking backs, the wing Marc Andreu and the midfielder Seremaia Bai, to the bench. Yet they settled in from the kick-off, Vincent Inigo ripping into the Northampton 22 down the left, Cameron McIntrye looping dangerously to launch his runners down the right and Ibrahim Diarra looking full of menace on the blind-side flank.
Of course, the proof of the pudding would be in their last-ditch tackling – always the test of a team' s emotional engagement. They passed muster here, too. Twice, in the first quarter, Shane Geraghty and Courtney Lawes hurt them in the open field. Twice, the visitors scrambled sufficiently well to deny the Saints a score.
Northampton were not helped by Bruce Reihana's hit-and-miss kicking – or in this case, miss-and-miss. The fact that he was lumbered with the marksmanship duties in the first place indicated that Jim Mallinder, the director of rugby, had little faith in Geraghty as his principal harvester of points. Reihana fluffed all three of his first-half shots, one of them entirely straightforward, and by the interval, the burden had passed back to the outside-half. The result? Perhaps the worst kick Geraghty has taken all season, which is saying something.
By this time, each side had a try on the board. Castres opened for business with an excellent score down the right featuring Diarra, McIntrye and, finally, the Samoan lock Joe Tekori, who wrestled his way over towards the right flag. Northampton's reply came direct from a set-piece, an area of rich pickings, when the Castres scrum splintered allowing Lee Dickson the time and space to turn on his heels and locate Reihana free on the short side. The finish was a formality.
McIntyre restored Castres' advantage immediately with a bullet of a drop goal, but the Frenchmen were beginning to annoy the Irish referee John Lacey at the breakdown. Applying the latest tackle-area laws to the letter, he dispatched Matthieu Bonello, the Castres hooker, to the sin-bin for interference at a ruck and this left the visitors a man down at the start of the second half. They paid the price immediately as Ben Foden gave Northampton the lead for the first time with an embarrassingly easy sucker-punch try 29 seconds in, cruising through a defensive line of the Red Sea variety. If the England full-back lives to be a hundred, he will never fully understand how the Franklin's Gardens pitch opened up for him as it did. Almost as startling was Geraghty's success with the conversion.
Geraghty managed a penalty as well, but Pierre Bernard struck two for the visitors to keep them at the races, and deep in the last 10 minutes there was only a point in it. In fact, Castres were pressing for the victory, largely because the foursquare Georgian prop Anton Peikrishvili sorted out their scrummaging difficulties the moment he took the field. Unfortunately for Peikrishvili, he was not quite as effective in the loose, and when he went off his feet at a ruck 30 metres from his own line to give Stephen Myler a sight of the sticks, it was game, set and match. Myler, on for Geraghty, is a high-calibre marksman, yet even he needed the help of post and bar to claim the points.
Scorers: Northampton: Tries Reihana, Foden; Conversion Geraghty; Penalties Geraghty, Myler. Castres: Try Tekori; Penalties Bernard 2; Drop goal McIntyre.
Northampton: B Foden (J Ansbro 72); C Ashton, J Clarke, J Downey, B Reihana; S Geraghty (S Myler 69), L Dickson; S Tonga'uiha, D Hartley (capt), B Mujati (E Murray 69), C Lawes, C Clark (M Sorenson 79), P Dowson, T Wood, R Wilson.
Castres: P Bernard; R Martial (M Andreu 65), P Garcia, R Cabannes (S Bai 49), V Inigo; C McIntyre, S Tillous-Borde (T Sanchou 81); Y Forestrier (M Coetzee 69, Saayman 75), M Bonello (B Kayser 65), D Saayman (A Peikrishvili 57), S Murray (M Rolland 72), J Tekori, I Diarra (J Bornman 74), Y Caballero (Kayser 40+2-44), C Masoe (capt).
Referee: J Lacey (Ireland).Reuse content