The Stade Marcel Michelin has a reputation for being one of the loudest stadiums anywhere in Europe. The noise in the build-up had been something else, but the volume quickly rose even further when the teams ran out and then even more when Stephen Myler got the action underway.
The first half was a salutary experience for the Saints. Not only will few of the players have ever run out in such an intense atmosphere, but nor will have they faced a team as good at home as Clermont Auvergne.
Ninety out of their previous 92 games in Clermont-Ferrand have ended in wins for the home team, and they showed just why they are so formidable with an outstanding performance that was as physical in defence as it had been clinical in attack.
More of the hosts’ tries later, but games are won first and foremost by not conceding points, and in this regard Clermont were excellent.
That is not to say that Saints did not have their opportunities. There were passages of play that got up to the home 22, a promising kick from George Pisi that put Nick Abendanon on the back foot, a ghosting James Wilson run that sliced through a small gap in traffic, and Samu Manoa winning repeated kick offs deep in French territory.
There were a couple of lineouts won against the throw, too, but these were relatively small crumbs of comfort, because when Clermont got their hands on the ball they were ruthless, powerful, accurate, and too much for the visitors to deal with.
Now Nakaitaci got two tries, the first crashing over from close range after bouncing off a couple of tackles further out, the second after he was found unmarked on the wing by Brock James’s long pass.
But the stars of the show were Abendanon and Wesley Fofana. The Englishman has been earning rave reviews in the Top 14 this season, and he showed why with some sparkling runs.
Having been put under pressure by Pisi he stepped out of two attempted tackles in quick succession to spark a counter attack that came within a forward pass of a try. And when he scythed though midfield to put Fofana over just before the break it handed the French international centre a deserved score for his own impressive performance.
Trailing 0-27 at half-time Saints were always going to come out running the ball, but just as in the first half the early plays brought nothing but another Clermont penalty for James to convert from in front of the uprights.
This in turn brought the visitors’ best spell of concerted pressure of the game, repeated phases maintaining control of the ball, spreading play left and right and Wilson making another great run deep into home territory.
There were a couple of penalties that Stephen Myler sent to the corner, the second of which saw repeated charges inch ever closer to the home line. But then in a play which summed up the day, George Pisi lost the ball in content and Abendanon went up to the other end to score himself.
Damien Chouly’s yellow card did little to slow Clermont down either, although some good charges from Jon Fisher, Tom Wood and Gareth Denman took Saints close to the home line.
The ball went wide, and while Christian Day got stopped in his tracks Clermont infringed, Myler kicked to the corner and after a couple of phases Alex Waller crashed over.
It was a consolation score but certainly what the visitors deserved for their efforts. But while it avoided a whitewash it did not stop the bouncing stands acclaiming their heroes in white long into the night.
CLERMONT Abendanon; Nakaitaci, Davies, Fofana, Nalaga; James, Radoslavjevic; Debaty, Kayser, Zirakashvili, Cudmore, Vahaamahina, Chouly (capt), Bonnaire, Lee
Reps - Ulugia, Domingo, Ric, Pierre, Bardy, Lacrampe, Delany, Rougerie
SAINTS Wilson; K Pisi, G Pisi, Burrell, Elliott; Myler, L Dickson; Corbisiero, Hartley (capt), Ma’afu, Manoa, Lawes, Wood, Clark, Dickinson
Reps - Haywood, A Waller, Denman, C Day, Fisher, Fotuali’i, Stephenson, Tuala
REFEREE John Lacey
4mins CLERMONT Pen James 3-0
12mins CLERMONT Try Nakaitaci Con James 10-0
16mins SAINTS Miss pen Myler
25mins CLERMONT Pen James 13-0
30mins CLERMONT Try Nakaitaci Con James 20-0
37mins CLERMONT Try Fofana Con James 27-0
HALF-TIME CLERMONT 27 SAINTS 0
46mins CLERMONT Pen James 30-0
54mins CLERMONT Try Abendanon Con James 37-0
57mins CLERMONT Yellow card Chouly
66mins SAINTS Try A Waller 37-5
FULL-TIME CLERMONT 37 SAINTS 5