Saturday 24 March 2018

Saints head for early exit

Castres 41 Northampton 22

Brendan Gallagher at Stade Pierre Antoine

Northampton effectively went crashing out of this year's Heineken Cup after just their third pool game when they were ambushed by an inspired Castres.

Last year's losing finalists may not have been eliminated in a mathematical sense, but no team has ever qualified after starting with three defeats and coach Jim Mallinder conceded they were as good as out.

To make matters worse, Mallinder admitted he didn't know whether Chris Ashton intended to stay with the club beyond the end of the season. Ashton, who is serving a four-week ban for tackling Leicester's Alesana Tuilagi by his dreadlocks, is out of contract next summer and can talk to other clubs from January 1.

Saracens' interest has been rumoured for several weeks, and Mallinder seemed to find the subject wearying. "You want all your best players to stay but if a player wants to leave, that is up to him," he said. "Contracts come up for renewal all the time. We want players who want to play for their club.

"Does Chris Ashton want to stay? Only he can say."

Privately, Northampton are suspicious that discreet offers may have been made to Ashton before they are officially allowed to be.

Another of Northampton's England players, Tom Wood, added to the sense of misery when he received a yellow card at a crucial stage of yesterday's match. Wood is considered a leading candidate for the England captaincy but was sent off for his role in a brawl against Leicester last weekend, and was sin-binned yesterday for entering a maul from the wrong side.

Before the game, Castres had also been drinking in the last-chance saloon, and the result was an 80-minute feast of running rugby. Both sides scored four tries apiece but crucially that most distinctive of goal kickers Romain Tuelet was in deadly form, landing nine of his 10 kicks while Saints found the target just once.

Their elimination, with three matches still to go, represents a remarkable reversal in fortunes for Northampton and can almost be traced back to last season's final when they led Leinster 22-9 at half-time. Since that moment, with one hand on the trophy, Europe has brought nothing but tears and heartache.

Leinster stormed back to win 33-22 at the Millennium and then last month, with a wonderful victory at Thomond in their grasp, Ronan O'Gara won the match from nowhere with a drop goal. Next came a below-par performance against Scarlets and now this.

They can curse privately at a number of decisions that didn't go their way but yet again they were their own worst enemies as they conceded a series of needless penalties and repeatedly coughed up possession at restarts.

They also twice butchered certain tries at crucial moments with Ben Foden stepping inside and avoiding an overlap in the first half and Stephen Myler managing to get penalised with a three-man overlap screaming at him.

A match of breathtaking speed and fluidity started with a try by Steve Malonga and only got quicker. Northampton decided to join the fun but that was always a high-risk strategy against a French team in the mood. For just over an hour or so they gave as good as they got though, and claimed first-half tries from Mark Sorenson and Jamie Elliott.

Saints' Achilles heel, though, was their ill-discipline and against a kicker of Tuelet's class they were always going to be punished. The fullback found the target with three penalties in the first half and converted both the early Malonga try and a smart effort by Romain Martial on the stroke of half-time.

Saints threatened briefly in the second half with tries from Samu Manoa and a second for Elliott but Castres were not to be denied. Tuelet kept kicking his goals, Martial claimed a second try and Ibrahim Diarra claimed a score at the death.

Ashton would have hugely enjoyed such a game but you start to wonder just how many more matches he might play for Saints.

Scorers -- Castres: Malonga, Martial 2, Diarra tries; Teulet 3 cons, 5 pens.

Northampton: Sorenson, Elliott 2, Manoa tries; Myler 1 con.

Castres: Teulet; Martial, Sanchou (Bonnefond 74), Bai, Evans; Tales (Bernard 29), Kockott (Lacrampe 66); Coetzee (Peikrishvili 60), Rallier (Boenello 57), Ducalcon (Kruger 79), Murray, Ortega, Diarra, Malonga (Caballero 66), Masoe.

Northampton: Foden; Artemyev, Pisi, May, Elliott; Myler (Lamb 57), Dickson (Roberts 66); Tonga'uiha (Waller 61), Hartley (capt; Haywood 67)), Doran-Jones, Sorenson, Lawes (Craig 67), Wood (Ingle 79), Nurley, Manoa.

Referee: J Lacey (Ire)


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