Richard Rae at Franklin’s Gardens
A win in the Heineken Cup is not to be undervalued but victory was one of very few positives Northampton could take from a performance which put talk of them being among the favourites to win this competition in painful context.
Castres, aware they were in danger of being overpowered up front, scrapped, spoiled and slowed the game down and, helped immeasurably by Northampton missing five of their eight kicks at goal, were still very much in the game right to the final whistle. “It was a tough game, they played well, very physically, and we didn’t play well, but we did win,” said the Northampton director of rugby, Jim Mallinder.
“You want to get on the front foot but out lineout didn’t function. We made a lot of breaks in the first half but we didn’t finish them and that and our poor goal-kicking kept the game tight. The goal-kicking was frustrating.”
Just as in Northampton’s opening Heineken Cup fixture last season, a memorable home victory against Munster, it did not take long for Courtney Lawes to make his presence felt. The manner in which the England lock brushed aside Daniel Saayman’s attempted tackle after five minutes suggested the Northampton pack should be the game’s dominant influence, an impression confirmed when they destroyed the Castres scrum to win a penalty that Bruce Reihana pulled left. When he missed another, anxiety crept around the ground, with good cause.
Castres, on the rare occasions they had been in possession, had already shown their attack possessed a dangerous edge and they opened the scoring after some 25 minutes with a try that resulted from swift handling down the right involving Pierre Bernard and Ibrahim Diarra before Joe Tekori drove over from close range.
The atmosphere was not improved when Reihana missed for a third time, this time from within the Castres 22, but five minutes before half-time the veteran New Zealander went some way towards redeeming himself with an angled run back to the blind side of a set scrum which wrong-footed the Castres defence to such an extent that no one laid a finger on him before he grounded the ball. Inevitably he missed the conversion and the Castres stand-off Cameron McIntyre showed him the way with a low but accurate drop goal to ensure the French club were still in the lead at half-time.
Whatever Mallinder said at half-time, within seconds of the restart Shane Geraghty’s darting blind-side run and Phil Dowson’s inside pass gave Ben Foden the chance to sprint in from 22 yards. It was in keeping with the game’s unpredictability that Geraghty converted from close to the touchline. Foden later left the field with an ankle injury that Mallinder suggested was no more than a sprain.
Those who hoped the burst of competence presaged an improved second period for the home side were to be disappointed, however. If anything it was Castres who found an attacking rhythm and Anton Peikrishvili was unfortunate when he was denied a try for a questionable knock-on after Foden spilled a high ball.
Geraghty’s successful penalty midway through the half was desperately needed. With 10 minutes left, though,Bernard brought Castres back to within a point before Stephen Myler, a replacement, landed a penalty off the post to afford Saints a modicum of breathing space.
It was they who were attacking when the final whistle was blown, knowing only too well that bonus points, whether achieved in victory or defeat, matter in this competition.
Northampton Foden (Ansbro, 70); Ashton, Clarke, Downey, Reihana; Geraghty (Myler, 68), Dickson; Tonga’uiha, Hartley (capt), Mujati (Murray, 68), Lawes, Clark (Sorenson, 72), Dowson, Wood, Wilson.
Tries Reihana, Foden Conversion Geraghty Penalties Geraghty, Myler.
Castres Bernard; Martial (Andreu, 63), Garcia (Sanchou, 79), Cabannes (Bai, 49), Inigo; McIntyre, Tillous-Borde; Forestier (Coetzee, 68), Bonello (Kayser, 63), Saayman (Peikrishvili, 56), S Murray (Rolland, 70), Tekori, Diarra (Bornman, 72), Caballero (Kayser, 39–44), Masoe (capt).
Sin-bin Bonello 36.
Try Tekori Penalties Bernard 2 Drop goal McIntyre.
Referee J Lacey (Ireland)
Originally published in The Guardian