Northampton Saints bowed out of the Heineken Champions Cup at the pool stage, despite a spirited performance against Stade Rochelais which saw the hosts play with 14 men for half the contest.
The men in Black, Green and Gold narrowly trailed 7-3 at half-time – Fin Smith with a penalty before Levani Botia’s try – but the key moment of the match on the stroke of half-time saw Fraser Dingwall red-carded after a head-on-head collision with Dillyn Leyds.
Saints stuck in the fight and trailed 13-14 shortly before the hour mark after a try for Tom James, but the reigning European champions pulled away in the closing stages with scores from UJ Seuteni, Grègory Alldritt, and a brace from Quentin Lespiaucq Brettes.
Smith missed a long-range penalty early on after a neck roll on Courtney Lawes, but made amends in the tenth minute from nearer the posts with Alldritt straying offside to make it 3-0.
A superb kick chase from Saints followed by a big tackle from Aaron Hinkley in the 20th minute forced a turnover penalty on halfway, but after the hosts kicked to the corner and Lawes, David Ribbans and Lukhan Salakaia-Loto all trucked the ball up, a handling error in front of the posts saw possession change hands.
A breakdown penalty on halfway for Stade Rochelais then saw Antoine Hastoy send the ball into the corner. With some territory, the French side built the phases and Botia tumbled over the line, with Hastoy converting.
It went from bad to worse for Northampton moments later as Lawes hobbled off with a calf injury, with Alex Coles the man to replace him in the back row.
There was a stop in play just before the break when Leyds went down, replaced by Teddy Thomas, and after a lengthy TMO review the hosts were down to 14 men with Dingwall adjudged to have made contact with the winger’s head in a tackle – the centre was shown a red card, his first card of any colour in his career.
That made Northampton’s task that much more difficult, but Saints defended well on their own line before Hinkley intercepted to keep the score at 7-3 at half-time.
The visitors made a fast start to the second 40, Thomas making a line break into the 22, but Saints held the ball up on the line.
After a raft of changes for both sides, Smith closed the gap to just a point after the Northampton pack won a penalty underneath the visitors’ posts.
However, the visitors responded with their second try of the afternoon, as a driving maul got moving before Brettes broke off the back and dived over the whitewash just left of the posts.
The sides were levelled up again on 51 minutes when Stade Rochelais scrum-half Tawara Kerr Barlow was shown a yellow card for handling the ball on the floor, and Saints took advantage moments later when Smith’s cross-field kick found Rory Hutchinson in space on the left wing.
The centre broke and found Mike Haywood on his shoulder, who in turn released James to burst through untouched under the posts.
Smith’s conversion made it 14-13, but that was as close as it got for the remainder of the clash as Stade Rochelais’ set piece came to the fore.
First, after sending a penalty into the corner, Alldritt’s pick-and-go saw the France international score, before Brettes broke off the back of another rolling maul to dot down on the short side.
The visitors really made use of their extra man to work the ball into space and send Seuteni over with ten minutes remaining, and Saints ended the match with 13 men when Salakaia-Loto saw red for a high fend to the head of a defender.
Phil Dowson’s side will now look to regroup before next weekend’s East Midlands Derby clash at Mattioli Woods Welford Road.
SAINTS: Furbank, Freeman, Dingwall, Hutchinson, Skosan, F Smith, Braley; E Waller, R Smith, Painter, Salakaia-Loto, Ribbans, Lawes, Hinkley, Ludlam (c)
Replacements: Haywood, Hobbs-Awoyemi, Petch, Coles, Scott-Young, James, Sleightholme, Ramm
STADE ROCHELAIS: Dulin, Leyds, Seuteni, Favre, Rhule, Hastoy, Kerr Barlow; Wardi, Lagrange, Atonio, Sazy, Picquette, Botia, Bourdeau, Aldritt (c)
Replacements: Brettes, Sclavi, Colombe, Lavault, Dillane, Boudehent, Berjon, Thomas