The Saints were denied the chance of a brilliant win in Montpellier as two touchline decisions - both of which went against them - allowed the hosts to kill off the Champions Cup tie in the final quarter.
George North looked to have extended a superb 12-10 half-time lead with one of the tries of the season, only for the TMO to rule it out extremely late for an Ahsee Tuala toe on the whitewash in the build up.
Then, with the game still finely balanced at 14-12 to the hosts, Timoci Ragusa’ foot off the field went unnoticed and allowed Montpellier to go to the corner with a penalty that ultimately produced the match winning try.
An error strewn opening 10 sprung into life when Nemani Nadolo beat his man and isolated two more Saints defenders down the left before serving up a frankly unplayable offload for Kelian Galletier to open Montpelier’s account.
JJ Hanrahan and Joseph Tomane produced bright moments for either side respectively, the Saints also doing superbly to hold up an ominous looking maul from their power packed hosts.
It was a spell that galvanised the men in white and having worked their way into the Montpellier 22, Ethan Waller’s gallop and flick for Ben Nutley unlocked the door. The good work still needed finishing, however, and Lee Dickson proved razor sharp to dart over and level the scores with JJ Hanrahan’s extras.
It was clinical stuff from the skipper and Hanrahan followed suit moments later, guiding over a penalty to take Saints into a narrow lead as half-time approached. It could have been better, too, the Irishman streaking clear from Harry Mallinder’s shoulder after the pair combined smartly on halfway only for the final pass to agonisingly evade Ben Nutley reach.
Still, a lead at the break was a welcome one and one that almost grew in the most stunning fashion. Dickson’s switch ball sent Juan Pablo Estelles surging through and he released Tuala, who showed great pace and awareness to go for the corner and pop it over the top for North.
The Welshman dotted down for a try of the season contender, but with Hanrahan midway through his kick routine, the referee and TMO interjected amidst howls from the home faithful, subsequent replays showing Tuala to be marginally in touch when throwing the final pass.
It was undoubtedly the turning point and five minutes later Montpellier were back on the front foot and unleashing their deadly weapon up the left. Comparisons with the irrepressible Jonah Lomu have followed Nadolo through his career and with the finish he produced to put the hosts back in front, it was easy to see why.
The lead grew after another controversial foot in touch incident, this one missed by the officials and allowing Montpellier to go to the corner with a penalty and maul Jacques du Plessis over.
It was a bitter pill to swallow for the Saints and one they wouldn’t recover from. Nadolo again blasted his way over the line on his favourite left side and though Tom Kessell darted over to reduce arrears, the damage had long since been done.
9mins MONT Try Galletier Con Catrakilis 7-0
29mins SAINTS Try Dickson Con Hanrahan 7-7
35mins SAINTS Pen Hanrahan 7-10
HALF-TIME MONT 7-10 SAINTS
50mins MONT Try Nadolo Con Catrakilis 14-10
60mins MONT Try Du Plessis Con Catrakilis 21-10
72mins MONT Try Nadolo 26-10
77mins SAINTS Try Kessell Con Hanrahan 26-17
FULL-TIME MONT 26-17 SAINTS
Michel; Ragusa, Tomane, Dumoulin, Nadolo; Catrakilis, White; Nariashvili, Geli, Du Plessis, Willemse, Mikautadze, Ouedraogo, Galletier, Qera (capt)
Mamukashvili, Watremez, Guillamon, Du Plessis, Battut, O’Leary, Immelman, Martin
Tuala; Estelles, Tuitavake, Mallinder, North; Hanrahan, Dickson (capt); E Waller, Clare, Hill, Ratuniyarawa, Craig, Paterson, Nutley, Harrison
Fish, Beesley, Brookes, Haywood, Ludlam, Kessell, Wilson, K Pisi
John Lacey (IRE)