Northampton Saints kicked off their Champions Cup campaign with an agonizing late loss to Union Bordeaux-Bègles at Franklin’s Gardens, as 2,000 supporters were welcomed through the gates to cheer on the men in Black, Green and Gold for the first time in nine months.
Four penalties from the boot of the returning Dan Biggar saw Saints play with the lead for much of the contest.
But despite dominating possession and territory – not to mention Bordeaux having two men sent to the bin in the second half – Northampton were undone inside the final few minutes, as a freak Santiago Cordero try handed Bordeaux a narrow victory.
In a cagey opening period, try-scoring opportunities were hard to come by with both teams willing to put boot to ball more often than not.
Saints definitely offered more with ball in hand, and it was Biggar who made his presence felt early on his return. Running a wrap-around play with Rory Hutchinson just outside the 22, his flat pass to George Furbank gave Saints good go-forward ball.
Taqele Naiyaravoro went close once the play was spread to his flank, but the visitors managed to get him down and wrestle the ball free. Back we went for a penalty under the posts, allowing Biggar to open the scoring.
The lead was doubled not long after. Chasing his own up-and-under well, Hutchinson forced Maxime Lucu under pressure after gathering the kick, getting over the ball to win the penalty. Biggar slotted it to make the score 6-0.
Midway through the first period, Bordeaux had the opportunity to narrow the gap, only for Ben Botica to push a long-range effort wide. Shortly after, the visitors were on the board with a much easier shot just outside the 22; Botica halving the gap once Owen Franks was penalised for sealing off his feet.
A high shot from Guido Petti on Sam Matavesi saw Biggar stretch the lead to 9-3 with another kick in front of the posts. With the penalty count rising, referee Ben Whitehouse warned the visitors.
The closest Saints came to crossing the try line before the break came when a deft midfield move on first phase allowed Adendorff to break into the 22. Once the ball was spread out wide to Naiyaravoro in space, he looked to feed Furbank on the inside with the scoring pass, only for the ball to go to deck thanks to good scramble defence.
Moments later, it was Bordeaux failing to gather a killer pass, as Diaby spilled an offload from Cordero after the Argentinian had brilliantly danced his way into the 22. Penalty advantage saw Botica narrow the gap to 9-6.
A scrum penalty with the clock in the red allowed Botica to level things at 9-9 heading into the break.
Saints were back in the lead early in the second half; a high tackle on Hutchinson gifted Biggar another close-range kick, making it 12-9 to Saints.
Life got tougher for Bordeaux when Whitehouse finally lost patience with their lack of discipline. Cameron Woki gave away two consecutive penalties at mauls inside the 22, ultimately paying for it with ten minutes in the bin. Saints failed to immediately cash in after deciding to go to the corner as Maxime Lamothe got in over the ball to win a huge relieving penalty for Bordeaux.
Just as time was expiring on the yellow card, Saints hammered away around the fringes inside the Bordeaux 22. Alex Mitchell drew a hole for James Fish with a snipe and a good inside ball, but the replacement hooker could not hold on with space in front of him.
In the 65th minute, Saints had another chance to attack an undermanned Bordeaux line. Trying to recover the ball from the bottom of a collapsed maul, Lucu stamped twice on the arm of Courtney Lawes. Whitehouse responded by brandishing the second yellow of the evening.
Against the run of play, Bordeaux went ahead thanks to a huge stroke of luck. After Matthieu Jalibert hit the post with an attempted penalty, Cordero reacted first to the bounce of the ball inside the 22, gathering well to dive over from close range. Jalibert was successful with the kick this time to hand the visitors a four-point lead heading into the final five minutes.
Saints threw together one last attack from deep in a bid to rescue the result, but a choke tackle inside the 22 allowed Bordeaux to kill the game off. Attentions now turn to next week’s trip to Dublin, where Chris Boyd’s charges will take on now familiar European foes Leinster.