On Saturday, Northampton were away in Castres and, although they had already qualified with an unassailable lead in Pool 1, I was keen to see if they had what it takes to go all of the way. After all, Castres had not lost at home for nine months and remain well placed in the French Top 14, equal with the high-flying Toulon. It requires certain qualities, in addition to the normal playing abilities, to win in situations like this. Peter Fitzgibbon, of Ireland, was the late replacement referee and he was very quick to put his stamp on the game. I, for one, certainly appreciated his firm application of the laws - and the game benefited.
The visitors began with purpose and pace – importantly with the recycle of ‘tackle ball’. Myler was consistently involved as first receiver from scrum-half Powell. One of the rarely mentioned indicators of quality performance - which, however, I favour – is ‘the number of times that #10 receives the ball direct from #9’. They are, after all, the best credentialed players in the team for these tasks! Most teams, it would appear, do not agree, judging by the interminable repetition of scrum-half passes to stationary forwards. Thankfully Northampton agree with me, and their game was played at pace with Myler orchestrating the attack, using the impressive James Downey to keep the line straight and tight. Variation came from the use of outside-centre Jon Clarke, who was also impressive, and the outstanding Ben Foden. Foden was very keen to be involved and offered himself at every opportunity – I was reminded of Glen Ella, such was his enthusiasm for the game. Not that Myler neglected his forwards either and Hartley and Dowson were prominent.
Myler was also getting the occasional ‘second touch’ – courtesy of the straight running and acceleration from his centres – and Northampton were soon exposing Castres on the extremities. Only the lineout was worrying the Saints and indeed they lost two of their own throws in the opening minutes. Not to worry, because soon they were able to benefit from the pace of their game and excellent hands from Clarke gave Joe Ansbro the opportunity on the wing. He did not disappoint – in fact, he never disappoints. He must be the best ‘second choice’ wing in the business.
Castres, although below full strength, were quick to respond. They clearly take pride in their outstanding home-ground record.A penalty took them to the 5 metre line and their excellent lineout – featuring amongst others Scott Murray – enabled them to apply considerable pressure. Northampton’s top quality defence was put to the test and they were equal to the task. Soon, the referee tired of Castres’ ‘over-enthusiasm’ and a series of penalties and free-kicks enabled Northampton back onto attack. The continuity and pressure which had marked their opening minutes, was soon back into their game and they established good position for Myler to take a drop-goal and an eight point lead. More of the same soon followed and following an excellent break, again by Ansbro, the ball was spread wide for Myler to give Dowson the try. The off-load, or the early pass out of the tackle zone, was causing problems for Castres. The conversion made it 0-15, but it was still early days.
Early days indeed, because Castres soon gained control of the restart ball and had the Saints under real pressure. Masoe, in the mould of genuine New Zealand backrowers, was prominent and within three minutes, with pace and continuity the foundation of their game, Bernard had crossed for a 7-15 scoreline. It was clear that this was not to be ‘one way traffic’. This was the half-time score but only outstanding, committed defence from both teams kept it so.
Masoe was again to the fore after the restart as he defused a Saints attack by stripping the ball to halt a close-quarter attack. Castres then showed their commitment with a series of attacks, halted only by the outstanding Northampton defence. This had begun to frustrate them and their attack became less precise. Soon the unnecessary cut-out pass – another of my pet hates – came into their play. On one such occasion, this ‘miss’ enabled the Saints to easily defuse a promising Castres’ attack by herding the attack into touch. Nevertheless, Northampton’s creaky lineout gave Castres the opportunity to maintain attacking pressure and they did so for three or four minutes on the Northhampton line. Rugby, however, is a game which requires diverse talents – both team and individual – and the Saints scrum was as dominant as the Castres’ lineout. This gave their defence some respite and they gained possession from a Castres’ 5-metre scrum and pushed play back to the quarter.
Free, at least for the moment, from the intensity of on-line defence, the Saints forwards greedily swarmed on an opportunity for possession from a counter-ruck. From such moments, important games are won and a tight blindside counter saw Hartley with an inside flick- pass, picked up brilliantly by, of course, Ansbro. He ran on, only to be halted by a desperate ankle-tap. Foden held his pace instinctively, to accept the off-load from the ground and take the try. Only a very good team could have scored this try!
At 67 minutes, a score of 7-20 looked secure for Northampton and this was soon 7-23. Bruce Reihana was subbed on and his pace, strength and footwork gave new legs to the visitors. And they needed them, because Castres were still not finished and they mounted a series of consistent attacks, which saw them cross - only for Dowson to somehow get his arm under the ball and prevent the touchdown. Castres, however, were not to be denied and their scrum held firm on successive occasions for their powerful #9, Tillous-Borde, to score.
The final score was 12-23 in favour of Northampton and they become the first team to win at Castres for some nine months. This was some achievement and gave cause for some confidence in the Saints supporters.
Saints are a good side. They have many qualities and, importantly, they can play the game in different ways. They have a fantastic, powerful, committed defence – never better demonstrated than here, away in Castres. They have proven match-winners in Foden and Ashton. James Downey is a tower of strength at inside-centre – not quite a Will Greenwood, but still with many of his qualities. They have a great work ethic and any opponent will have to earn any victory. Their scrum is powerful and destructive.
On the downside, their lineout is fragile and this will allow teams to mount continued pressure which may ultimately prove intolerable, even for the Saints’ defence. Further, I’m not convinced that their scrum is entirely legal. Dylan Hartley comes quickly out of the top of many scrums, which leads me to believe that he is pushing upwards – illegally. I fear that many referees will agree with me, but maybe they can change that as they wish.
They play good, committed, skilful, aggressive rugby. I like them!
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