The mist hung over Franklin’s Gardens like a shroud last night, and there were times when Northampton’s campaign in Europe seemed as though it might finish the evening wrapped up in one. Victory was the minimum requirement, preferably one of the bonus-point variety, but Castres stayed within range of them throughout the contest. While the Midlanders just about sneaked home, they did not manage even a single try, let alone the four they craved.
Almost certainly, they did not do enough. Three second-half penalties from the substitute stand-off Ryan Lamb, to go with the three slotted by the man he replaced, Stephen Myler, were the sum total of the Premiership club’s scoring efforts and as a result, they are now playing for a best runners-up place in Pool 4. They will need to give Glasgow a serious runaround in Scotland next week and pray for half a dozen other results to go their way.
Northampton must have considered themselves short-changed when they ended the first half all square at six points apiece. They had dominated the tight exchanges, largely through the heavyweight services of their Tongan prop Soane Tonga’uiha, and applied so much pressure when they set themselves up for a driving maul in the red zone that George Clancy, the referee had no option but to send the Castres front-rower Anton Peikrishvili to the cooler – as if the temperature was not cool enough – for dragging the thing to earth.
This close-quarter supremacy may have surprised the crowd, given that Castres had held the whip hand in that area when the sides met in France back in October. But the visitors had lost their South African prop Michael Coetzee shortly before the game – Coetzee suffered a family bereavement and caught the first plane home to the republic – and as a tactical consequence, they demoted their highly-rated international loose-head specialist Yannick Forestier to the bench.
It was another South African, the No 8 Antoine Claassen, who caught the eye early on. The son of the former Springbok captain Wynand Claassen, who led his country on the socially divisive, riot-scarred tour of New Zealand in 1981, the back-rower showed the full range of skills going forward and no shortage of ticker when he and his colleagues found themselves in reverse gear.
Only Courtney Lawes, the England lock, stayed with him in the first quarter. Much to the delight of a red-rose coaching contingent who expect him to make his presence felt in the forthcoming Six Nations, his line-out work was excellent, he nailed the Castres outside-half Daniel Kirkpatrick with a couple of balls-and-all tackles – later, he would send the same man into la-la land with a real brusier of a hit – and when his fellow second-rower Samu Manoa freed him down the left, he made ground like the thoroughbred athlete his many supporters have always believed him to be.
Yet for all Lawes’ early efforts, it was Castres who opened the scoring when Tonga’uiha was penalised at a scrum, much to his disgust, and Rory Kockott did the necessary from a little over 20 metres. This indignity put Tonga’uiha in a cold-eyed fury and he won a penalty of his own at the first time of asking to give Stephen Myler his first sight at goal. The kick was far more testing than Kockott’s, but the outside-half’s strike was sugar-sweet.
Kockott and Myler exchanged penalties again before the break before things opened up a little in the second period. Kirkpatrick struck the upright with a drop-goal attempt; then Tom Wood escaped down the left when a kick was charged down, thereby launching a fierce attack in which Ben Foden and Dylan Hartley both threatened to score. Castres just about held firm – there was no shortage of physical commitment about them – and Northampton had to settle for another three-pointer. It was the story of their night.
Northampton B Foden; J Wilson, G Pisi, D Waldouck (T May 62), J Elliott; S Myler (R Lamb 56), L Dickson (M Roberts 62); S Tonga’uiha (A Waller 65), D Hartley (capt), P Doran-Jones (T Mercey 56), S Manoa, C Lawes, C Clark, T Wood, P Dowson (G-J Van Velze 56, M Sorenson 75).
Castres B Dulin; M Evans, R Cabannes (T Sanchou 71), R Lamerat (P Bonnefond 66), M Garvey; D Kirkpatrick (P Bernard 73), R Kockott; S Taumoepeau (G Marmoiton 62), M Bonello (B Mach 52), A Peikrishvili, C Samson (M Rolland 71), J Tekori (capt), J Bornman (Marmoiton 37-46), Y Caballero, A Claassen (P Wannenburg 65).
Referee G Clancy (Ireland).