The Saints finished their home European Rugby Champions Cup campaign with a bonus point win over Castres, but the headline score did not tell the full story of a dramatic afternoon at the Gardens.
The hosts could not have had a better start, Teimana Harrison crashing over with three minutes on the clock. The England international, who had been switched to number eight with Louis Picamoles ruled out by injury, had a typically rambunctious afternoon with ball in hand, and his opportunism would see him grab another before the break.
Stephen Myler also crossed in the first half to give Saints a 21-8 lead going into the break, but Castres owned the third quarter to tie things up, and it took a late score from man of the match Tom Wood to seal the second bonus point win in as many Saturdays.
Myler and Wood played instrumental roles in Harrison’s opener, the skipper winning a penalty at a breakdown on half-way and the fly half sending a superb touchfinder to set up position deep in the visitors’ 22.
The forwards went around the fringes repeatedly to suck in the defenders, and when the play came back towards the uprights Myler took play to the line to pop the ball to Harrison.
Castres replied a few minutes later, Rory Kockott kicking a penalty after Geoffrey Palis had torn a path through the Saints’ defence.
However Saints were intent on maintaining an upbeat tempo, Nic Groom tapping a penalty quickly just inside the visitors’ half. But while they got to within sight of the whitewash this time Castres’ defence held, winning a turnover and then forcing a fumble to earn themselves a scrum.
This was one of Castres’ strengths in France back in October, but they were second best at the lineout, where Saints were not just winning balls against the throw but using the opportunity to set up powerful mauls, too.
One such play set up another great position close to Castres’ line, with hooker Jody Jenneker seeing yellow after his team had received a warning for conceding too many penalties. But despite being down to 14 Castres’ defence remained solid, and with the scrum staying at eight men - Horacio Agulla the man taken off for the duration of the sin bin period - the power stayed in situ at that end of the game, too.
Indeed Castres won that 10-minute period courtesy of an Alexandre Bias try. Again it was Palis who caused the disruption in defence, with Robert Ebersohn putting in a lovely offload and Bias crashing over in the corner.
Saints were stung and reacted immediately. The score was created by Saints’ dominance at the lineout, and after Groom made the most of space to sprint into Castres’ 22 the speed of support created a massive overlap for Myler to dive over unopposed.
There was more to come just before the break, too, Harrison going over for his second. Initially it looked as if Castres had held Saints out after the number eight had collected Jenneker’s overthrown lineout to set up camp in the 22.
Courtney Lawes had come within an outstretched arm of dotting down, but while Castres’ defence scrambled to win a scrum they then made a mess of the play to hand the try to Harrison.
Having conceded those two late tries in the first half you may have thought that Castres would have gone seeking five pointers of their own early in the second. But when they were awarded a deserved penalty at the first scrum after the resumption of play Kockott pointed to the sticks - and missed badly to the left.
Nevertheless Castres got the ball back immediately, and were deep in Saints’ territory straight away. The former Leicester duo of Steve Mafi and Agulla who did the damage, the former with an offload, the latter with an arcing run only ended a couple of metres shy of the line.
Castres went through phase after phase, but Saints’ defence was up to the challenge, repelling what was thrown at them time and again. It was a full team effort, but when Saints found themselves a man short with Juan Pablo Estelles receiving treatment Castres pounced, using the extra man on their left wing to score in the corner through Julien Dumora.
Kockott’s touchline conversion was a peach, and with two more penalties Castres had tied things up with 20 minutes to play.
The visitors had had the best of the third quarter, but Saints began the fourth on the front foot with a series of powerful runs and half-bursts from the ball carriers. However the fluency was just failing to come and eventually Myler dropped back into the pocket to try for goal, only to see the ball come back off the upright and into a grateful pair of Castres hands.
There was more promise, George North and Ben Foden both making eye-catching breaks, but all too often the ball would hit the deck with players either not anticipating passes or sending a speculative offload when it would have been better advised to keep ball in hand.
A try did come, a penalty being sent to the corner and Ethan Waller scooping up the ball to feed Wood, who was at the bottom of a mass of bodies that powered over the line.
Myler’s conversion took Saints seven points clear, but if there was any thought that the game was done and dusted then it was quickly dispelled as Castres put together the move of the match with some end-to-end brilliance.
Pressure from the Saints’ eight put Castres under pressure in their own 22, but the ball came out nonetheless and Palis slipped out of a tackle to turn on the afterburners into space. The always-dangerous David Smith headed up the touchline, and nice passing between the winger, Dupont and Benjamin Urdapilleta took one defender after another out of the play.
A try looked inevitable, but the defence scrambled, the ball hit the deck to go forward, and even though Castres won a penalty at the scrum Saints then won the subsequent set piece against the head, and with the remainder of the 80 minutes played out safely in midfield the points had been well won.
SAINTS Foden; Estelles, Burrell, Mallinder, North; Myler, Groom; A Waller, Haywood, Hill, Lawes, Day, Wood (capt), Gibson, Harrison
Reps - Clare, E Waller, Beesley, Craig, Nutley, Dickson, Hanrahan, Tuala
CASTRES Palis; Agulla, Taumoepeau, Ebersohn, Smith; Dumora, Kockott (capt); Lazar, Jenneker, Tussac, Jacquet, Moreaux, Caballero, Bias, Vaipulu
Reps - Mach, Tichit, Kotze, Capo Ortega, Dupont, Urdapilleta, Mafi, Combezou
REFEREE Andy Brace (IRFU)
3mins SAINTS Try Harrison Con Myler 7-0
10mins CASTRES Pen Kockott 7-3
18mins CASTRES Yellow card Jenneker
29mins CASTRES Try Bias 7-8
32mins SAINTS Try Myler Con Myler 14-8
37mins SAINTS Try Harrison Con Myler 21-8
HALF-TIME SAINTS 21 CASTRES 8
43mins CASTRES Miss pen Kockott
48mins CASTRES Try Dumora Con Kockott 21-15
55mins CASTRES Pen Kockott 21-18
58mins CASTRES Pen Kockott 21-21
60mins SAINTS Miss DG Myler
68mins SAINTS Try Wood Con Myler 28-21
FULL-TIME SAINTS 28 CASTRES 21