By Paul Morgan, editor of Rugby World Magazine
No English side since Bath in 2002 had gone through the Heineken Cup pool stage unbeaten, that was until Northampton won here in Castres – a remarkable achievement from what is fast becoming a remarkable side, capable of challenging at the top table in European rugby.
I’ve seen the Saints a few times this season and I was lucky enough to be in Edinburgh at the start of the campaign to beat an ambitious and expansive Scottish outfit.
But should please Saints fans is the contrast they have shown this time around.
In Edinburgh they had to match the Scots’ 100mph game to win and here in Castres they had to dig deeper than even before to withstand a barrage of Castres attacks. Their heart and backbone has been called into question but the questions must stop after this performance, which for large parts was backs-to-the-wall at a passionate Stade Pierre-Antoine, where Castres haven’t lost this season, despite being mid-table in the Top 14.
There was also a lot of the Saints we know and love in Castres as they built on their defensive effort with two of the best tries the competition has seen this season, from Phil Dowson and Ben Foden.
Both these scores were long-range efforts and both contained telling contributions from Joe Ansbro, who made his Scotland debut in November.
The final try was undoubtedly the best and it started with Castres in possession 35 metres form the Northampton line. Counter-rucking followed and then a counter-attack started by Calum Clark, aided and abetted by a wonderful reverse pass from Dylan Hartley and the pace of Ansbro before an offload sent Foden off the line. Breathtaking!
Ansbro also dashed 40 metres after a Roger Wilson off-load to set up Dowson’s try. You couldn’t keep him out of the game and like that centre forward on a hot streak all he touches seems to turn to gold.
Ansbro was made man of the match and why not for his sensational contributions to the two tries and one of his own but I hope he won’t mind if I award the Rugby World Award to Calum Clark.
While captain of the England Under-20s Clark was identified as a Rising Star by Rugby World – at Leeds – and he is starting to fulfil his potential under Jim Mallinder and Dorian West at Franklin’s Gardens.
His defensive performance here in Castres was immense and he is very comfortable with ball in hand. Courtney Lawes and Calum Clark in the Northampton and England second rows is a frightening proposition.
The last time Northampton grabbed a home draw in the Heineken Cup (in 2000) they won it. How about history repeating itself? Well the home draw is so important as Biarritz showed last season.
Castres (7) 12 Tries: Bernard, Tillous-Borde Con: Bernard. Northampton (15) 23 Tries: Ansbro, Dowson, Foden Con: Myler Pen: Myler Drop: Myler
astres: Denos, Nicolas, Audrin, Garcia, Inigo, Bernard, Tillous-Borde, Coetzee, Kayser, Saayman, Murray, Capo, Masoe, Malonga, Bornman.
Replacements: Martial for Audrin (62), Bai for Garcia (70), Peikrishvili for Coetzee (60), Giorgadze for Kayser (53), Ducalcon for Saayman (62), Adamou for Masoe (53), Tekori for Malonga (79). Not Used: Albouy.
Northampton: Foden, Ansbro, Clarke, Downey, Diggin, Myler, Powell, Tonga’uiha, Hartley, Mujati, Clark, Sorenson, Dowson, Wood, Wilson.
Replacements: Reihana for Downey (68), Commins for Myler (78), Geraghty for Powell (78), Sharman for Hartley (68), Day for Sorenson (56), Easter for Wood (66). Not Used: Waller, Mercey.
Referee: Peter Fitzgibbon (Ireland)