Rarely can a game have ended so cruelly for the black, green and gold. Having done all the hard work to put themselves within touching distance of at least a draw when Phil Dowson finished off a superb move five minutes from time, they were undone by a late Marc Andreu try that denied even the consolation of a losing bonus point.
Jim Mallinder’s post-match comments told the story pretty succinctly, telling BBC Radio Northampton: “You prepare all week, come out here and work hard, you’re in bonus point territory throughout the game and then you have a chance of equalising.
“Then to suddenly lose it at the death and to not have a bonus point is disappointing.
“We’ve lost a game we could have won. We always knew it was going to be difficult and that we were going to have to play at our very best. They’re a quality side full of top players, and I think we did enough. It would have been nice to have got something from the game.”
That Saints were even in the running come the closing minutes was testament to their character, having gone behind with just four minutes on the clock.
Racing had been unbeaten on home turf in the Top 14 this season, and in the opening minutes they showed just what confidence that gave them going into the European campaign.
Jonny Sexton may have been missing for half-a-dozen weeks, but the Lions fly half slotted straight back into the swing of things, marshalling his back line and putting in some good touch finders. And the hosts’ early pressure was rewarded with just four minutes on the clock when centre Alexandre Dumoulin slipped out of a tackle to be powered over the line.
Racing were powerful, physical and getting away with whatever they could in the ruck and maul areas. And while Saints did have their moments in the opening quarter, they were limited to a Luther Burrell burst and a passage of phase play on the home 22.
But the visitors rode their luck, too, not least when Ken Pisi and Ben Foden tried to play a bit of football from deep. Andreu’s pick off the floor was superb, but Racing conceded first a penalty, and then a knock on after the subsequent lineout to allow Stephen Myler to clear his lines.
This in turn sparked Saints’ best spell of pressure in the contest, with George North going down the left, Burrell putting through a touchfinder that rebounded off a Racing defender and the Pisi brothers combining down the left wing.
But at the crucial time Racing slowed the ball down, winning first a scrum and then a penalty, and while there was one thunderous tackle from Kahn Fotuali’i on Antoine Claassen it was the men in blue and white who were by and large dictating the contact areas.
However Saints won a penalty from a maul to get themselves on the scoreboard, and then forced a couple of crucial turnovers just as it looked like Racing were building up another head of steam.
Still, the hosts were limited to a Sexton penalty, and with Myler on target three minutes after the restart Saints were still in touch.
And as the hour approached they came within a couple of metres of taking the lead, only to have joy turn to anguish as George Pisi, who had shown glimpses of promise in attack from deep, cut a great line straight through the Racing defence. The whitewash was beckoning, but at the crucial moment the Samoan’s leg went, causing him not just to fumble but to have to be replaced, too.
It was a cruel blow for the visitors, who were just getting on top with prop Julien Brugnaut in the sin bin. And there was another one to come when the ball glanced off Ben Foden to the retreating Myler, conceding a penalty from which Sexton gave his team breathing space with 13 minutes remaining.
But then Saints struck. After minutes of piling on the pressure, and forcing Racing to concede both a string of penalties on their line and Brian Mujati to the sin bin, the visitors got their reward.
Great work on the deck won back a loose ball, and with the ball retained Ken Pisi showed great skill to sell a dummy at pace and feed Dowson for the score. The hordes of travelling supporters went crazy, but there is always a ‘but’, and cruelly it was Foden who fell foul of Lady Luck.
To their credit Saints were going for the win, but with Racing pressing once more the full back tried a grubber to unlock the defence. It was a piece of ambition too far, and when the ball rebounded to Andreu the rest was history.
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4mins RACING Try Dumoulin Con Sexton 7-0
30mins SAINTS Pen Myler 7-3
37mins RACING Pen Sexton 10-3
HALF-TIME RACING 10 SAINTS 3
43mins SAINTS Pen Myler 10-6
49mins RACING Miss pen Sexton
54mins RACING Yellow card Brugnaut
67mins RACING Pen Sexton 13-6
73mins RACING Yellow card Mujati
75mins SAINTS Try Dowson 13-11
79mins RACING Try Andreu Con Goosen 20-11
FULL-TIME RACING 20 SAINTS 11