The Saints will be licking their wounds after a tough afternoon against a rampant Castres outfit in the European Rugby Champions Cup.
The sky may have been as clear as a bell, but those watching at home would not have been able to feel the strong wind that was blowing from end-to-end at the Stade Pierre Antoine.
Saints had the breeze in their faces in the first half, a weather advantage the hosts used repeatedly throughout the opening 40.
Castres’ kicking game helped them earn the first points in the 10th minute. James Wilson’s catch of a Rory Kockott box kick was solid enough, but he held on that fraction too long at the breakdown and Benjamin Urdapilleta stepped up to use the wind to kick the penalty from the best part of 50 metres.
Four minutes later and Urdapilleta had doubled his team’s lead from in front of the sticks. Saints may have conceded the penalty, but they would have nevertheless felt good after having held out repeated Castres charges with some immense defence.
That said, the hosts should never have been in that position, with a blatant forward pass missed by the officials in the build-up on Saints’ 10-metre line.
But decisions are decisions, and referee Iain Watson was receiving the ire of the Castres faithful at the end of the first quarter with a series of penalties at the breakdown that gave Saints the opportunity to build pressure deep in the home 22.
The first lineout was lost, Castres repelled the waves of attack sprung by the second, the third brought another penalty and while the fourth yielded a strong maul and a call to the TMO to check for grounding, there was no clear evidence and when Castres’ scrum power won possession back this chance, too, had gone.
Castres’ poor discipline saw Kockott sent to the sin bin, but Saints just were not able to capitalise with mistakes at crucial times putting themselves on the back foot. An overthrown lineout was scooped up superbly by Alex Tulou off his bootlaces with the number eight blasting through at pace.
Rory Hutchinson scrambled to make a try saving tackle on Horacio Agulla as play was recycled quickly, but there was no one on hand to stop David Smith crossing unopposed when Tulou made his next powerful burst through the middle.
Saints did carry on trying to shift the point of attack, but not only did Castres make important tackles at crucial times, they also capitalised on some generous refereeing to score a second try on the stroke of half-time.
Bodies came flying off their feet on halfway to win the ball back, but referee Davies allowed play to continue, and with Kockott back on the field to chip into acres of space it was only a matter of time before the score came, prop Antoine Tichit burrowing over from close range.
Saints needed to get their hands on the ball and build some concerted pressure as play resumed, but as in the first half their offloading game was too frantic, putting themselves under needless pressure.
Castres’ pressure defence deserves praise, but there was another crucial refereeing decision that played a helping hand, too, with Geoffrey Palis appearing from the stands to have taken a Stephen Myler kick over the dead ball line. Instead it was a scrum some 35 metres from the visitors’ line, and with Castres putting pace into their phase play it was not long before Smith was over for his second of the afternoon.
Castres could have had the bonus point a couple of minutes later as the bounce of the ball started to go their way, too, Tulou beating Wilson to the play after a Kockott chip had been partially charged down.
Saints did manage to get a dangerous attack together 10 minutes into the half, Hutchinson making a searing break deep into the home half. A high tackle went unpunished, Castres recovered possession, and the chance was gone.
Another promising position came to nothing when Ben Foden lost the ball in a strong double tackle on the home 22, and while Castres were profligate themselves on occasion - Smith fumbling with space to run in, and the forwards turning over possession on Saints’ line - they were lucky to still be at full strength going into the final quarter.
Awarded a penalty on the 22, Lee Dickson tapped quickly, only to be impeded by Kockott within the first 10 metres. The professional foul only brought another penalty, and not the second yellow that might have come with it, and while Harry Mallinder put the ball into the corner Castres’ pack held out to drive the maul into touch.
The Saints eight had some revenge as they held out a Castres drive at the other end of the field, and the defence was rewarded when Wilson finished off a flowing attack with eight minutes to play. Debutant Nafi Tuitavake ran a nice line, Ben Foden put a kick through for Ahsee Tuala to chase, and with Saints flooding forward the overlap on the far side brought points.
There may have been a few minutes still to play but any thought of consolation was quickly forgotten as Castres ran in two more tries to add gloss to the final score and secure the bonus point, replacements Alexandre Bias and Antoine Dupont both going over.
CASTRES Palis; Agulla, Combezou, Ebersohn, Smith; Urdapilleta, Kockott; Tichit, Jenneker, Kotze, Jacquet, Moreaux, Babillot, Jelonch, Tulou (capt)
Reps - Mach, Lazar, Montes, Lassale, Bias, Dupont, Dimora, Vialelle
SAINTS Foden; Wilson, Hutchinson, Mallinder, North; Myler, Groom; A Waller, Hartley, Brookes, Lawes, Paterson, Wood (capt), Harrison, Picamoles
Reps - Haywood, E Waller, Hill, Ratuniyarawa, Gibson, Dickson, Tuitavake, Tuala
REFEREE Iain Davies
9mins CASTRES Pen Urdapilleta 3-0
13mins CASTRES Pen Urdapilleta 6-0
22mins CASTRES Yellow card Kockott
29mins CASTRES Try Smith Pen Urdapilleta 13-0
38mins CASTRES Try Tichit Con Urdapilleta 20-0
HALF-TIME CASTRES 20 SAINTS 0
43mins CASTRES Try Smith Con Urdapilleta 27-0
72mins SAINTS Try Wilson Con Myler 27-7
74mins CASTRES Try Bias Con Dumora 34-7
76mins CASTRES Try Dupont Con Dumora 41-7
FULL-TIME CASTRES 41 SAINTS 7