Michalak's class too much for gutsy Saints

Toulouse 37 - Northampton 9
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The Independent Online

Toulouse, the strolling aristocrats of French rugby, are once more within touching distance of the European rugby crown.

Toulouse, the strolling aristocrats of French rugby, are once more within touching distance of the European rugby crown.

The Heineken Cup champion of 1996 and 2003 took their anticipated place in the semi-finals of this year's event with a largely serene passage before 36,000 of their adoring followers here.

It may not have been the finest vintage ever uncorked in these parts but manifestly it was more than enough to see off Northampton's brave but ultimately flawed ambitions.

Rugby's professional age has changed much in the sport but not certain basics of the game. There is no substitute for pace and precision, especially from second phase ball, as Toulouse reminded everyone last night.

Once the French began to get quick ball, it was a different game. Instantly, they looked in a different league to the gutsy but outclassed English club.

Northampton's task was always tough but the loss of key forwards Andrew Blowers and Tom Smith before half time, Blowers after only nine minutes with heavy concussion, was a cruel blow from which the Midlanders could never recover.

Toulouse were much below their best in the first half, their precision, timing and the angles they ran strangely out of synch. But no matter, when they began to flick the correct switches immediately after half-time, Northampton were only hanging on, involved chiefly in a damage limitation exercise.

Northampton had their heroes, most noticeably the South African Corne Krige whose tackling was immense and brave to the point of self-danger. Behind the scrum, the New Zealander Bruce Reihana worked tirelessly to try and open up the Toulouse defence.

But Northampton were overwhelmed up front, were hammered in the front row and overpowered in the line-out where the England hooker Steve Thompson lost five of his own throws. Thompson said: "We hung in there in the first half and were just two scores away from them. But we came up against a bigger and stronger team and ended up punching ourselves out."

Toulouse led 14-6 at half-time, chiefly because the scrum-half Jean-Baptiste Elissalde missed three penalties and two drop goal attempts. Frédéric Michalak put them in front after 19 minutes with a 75-metre intercept try, before Cedric Heymans went over from close range.

Shane Drahm managed three penalties but the French were irresistible in the last 40 minutes. A drop goal and penalty by Michalak pushed Toulouse out to a 20-9 lead before Vincent Clerc skipped over in the right corner, followed by another Michalak penalty.

Finally, from a quick throw in by Clerc, Gregory Lamboley scored at the posts.

It was, ultimately, a conclusive and compelling victory, one to make the other serious pretenders to the Heineken crown doff their caps.

Toulouse: Tries Michalak, Heymans, Clerc, Lamboley. Cons Elissalde (4), Pens Michalak (2). Drop goal Michalak. Northampton: Pens Drahm (3)

Toulouse: C Poitrenaud; V Clerc, Y Jauzion, F Fritz, C Heymans; F Michalak, J-B Elissalde (J F Dubois, 72); J-B Poux (D Human, 65), Y Bru (Servat, 46), O Hasan, F Pelous (capt) (T Brennan, 66), R Millochlusky (D Gerard, 58), J Bouilhou, F Maka (C Labit, 58), G Lamboley.

Northampton: B Reihana; J Rudd, B Cohen, M Stcherbina, M Tucker (A Vilk, 71); S Drahm, J Howard (B Jones, 71); T Smith, S Thompson (capt), R Morris (S Emms, 38), M Lord, D Browne (S Boome, 52), D Fox, C Krige, A Blowers (M Soden, 9).

Referee: N Williams (Wales)