Northampton Saints began their 2018-19 European Challenge Cup campaign with a 41-20 defeat to Top14 leaders Clermont Auvergne.
The visitors carried their league form across the channel as they scored six tries, with scrum-half Greig Laidlaw picking up 11 points and winger Peter Betham crossing twice.
Saints showed plenty of tenacity in the defeat, scoring two tries at the end in a late blitz – with both Tom Collins and David Ribbans crossing inside three second-half minutes.
Saints came close to getting an early breakthrough when Clermont’s Isaiah Toeava failed to catch Dan Biggar’s grubber kick, but Andrew Kellaway could not quite ground the ball in the corner.
Biggar then stepped up to break the deadlock with a penalty kick, as Clermont found themselves offside after David Ribbans’ steal at the line-out, but Laidlaw immediately replied with a three-pointer of his own at the other end with Northampton offside from the kick-off.
Toeava made an outstanding run down the left wing, hitting 70 metres before Tom Collins saved the day for Saints with a try-stopping tackle, but the hosts could not stop Betham on the right wing moments later, who crossed in the corner with the defence stretched.
Despite an intense amount of pressure in the Clermont 22, Saints couldn’t find a way through to the try line, but their efforts were rewarded with three points from the boot of Biggar as the French side were penalised in the ruck.
Clermont then built the phases and worked their way over the line once again; this time Peceli Yato pierced through the Saintsmen to put his side two tries to the good on the approach to half-time.
Clermont didn’t settle for two however, and Betham made it two tries for himself and three for the Top14 outfit, as he latched onto a grubber in the corner to take his side 6-20 ahead at the end of the first 40.
Possession flittered back and forwards as the second half got underway, with both sides making some terrific runs in the opening stages.
Clermont looked to put the game out of the hosts’ reach as Rabah Slimani crossed for the bonus-point score from a rolling maul, Laidlaw’s touchline conversion taking his side 6-27 ahead.
Arthur Iturria ran under the sticks and Yato struck again for Clermont shortly after with Saints getting hit on the counter attack.
Luther Burrell came close to notching a try of his own for Saints, but couldn’t quite make the score despite running an impressive line to cut through the French defence.
Collins did cross the whitewash however for Saints with a sublime 80-metre sprint after a spilled ball was left for him to dash through the open field, bringing Franklin’s Gardens to its feet.
And despite the result, the game finished on a high note for Saints with Ribbans scoring a second by the posts from a ruck to take the scoreline to 41-20.