Wasps’ dramatic draw with Leinster meant that both teams were assured of their place in the Champions Cup knock-outs by the time the action got underway at the Gardens. But despite the pressure of qualification having receded, there was still the small matter of a home tie to play for, and the intensity from both teams from the first whistle showed that this was not going to be a game for the faint-hearted.
It was Racing who had the best of the game, and when Dylan Hartley was yellow carded for tackling a man in an offside position they had the first boost of the day, too.
Maxime Machenaud’s penalty punished the home captain, with the scrum-half landing a second three minutes later.
Meanwhile the closest Saints came to a try was in the 26th minute. Saints ran a typical backs move, with James Wilson arcing into the line with the ball missing men out in the middle to find the full back. George North slid through a delightful grubber, and while Luther Burrell was the first of four Saints to get to the ball the bounce just beat him and instead of a try referee Nigel Owens had his arm out for a Racing scrum.
Still Saints were on the board by then, Stephen Myler landing his 400th career penalty in black, green and gold, but it was not long before Racing were back camped on the hosts’ line. Wave after wave of blue and white came, but time and again the hosts’ patience in defence paid dividend, forcing Racing back and turning the ball over.
But just as it looked as if Saints would go into the break with just a three-point deficit, Racing struck. They had showed plenty of intent with ball in hand, with some lovely interplay and delayed passing opening up the blindside defence for wing Juan Imhoff to score.
Machenaud hit the upright with the conversion, but there was still an eight-point margin to make up playing down the hill. And Saints started the second half in the most promising of fashions, Ken Pisi dancing his way into space on the left wing and turning on the afterburners.
The play went right, but brother George’s pass inside was ill-judged, and when the ball hit the deck Henry Chavancy’s hack ahead turned defence into attack and Imhoff grabbed the ball to stun the crowd.
That was a sucker punch, but there was worse to come three minutes later as full back Benjamin Lapeyre stripped Burrell of the ball to score unopposed to make it 25-3.
The Gardens was shell-shocked, and the deficit meant that even though eight minutes had been played a kickable penalty was sent to the corner. And it paid dividends immediately, Dickson finding North for a score in the left corner.
It was North’s seventh in the Champions Cup this term, but it was Imhoff who was attracting all the attention, stepping around Burrell to put Racing onto the front foot once again. His hack ahead went over the dead ball line, but when Saints held onto the ball after recovering the drop-out the play was sent to the corner for a Racing lineout five metres out.
This time the tight defence held out, turning the ball over in the process, and after Ken Pisi forced Lapeyre into holding onto the ball Myler sent a lovely kick into the 22 from a tight angle to put his team onto the front foot.
There was worse to come from the full back, whose deliberate knock-on saw him be sent to the sin bin. The penalty went to the corner, but just as the pack looked to be getting going with a maul the drive was pulled back for truck-and-trailer off-side and Racing were off the hook.
The boost this gave the visitors was obvious, and five minutes later they had the bonus point. Jamie Roberts got the try, and while it was his power that took him over the line it was the Welshman’s skill in picking the ball up off the ground at full tilt that set up the position.
With Machenaud off the field Benjamin Dambielle took over the kicking duties, but the result was still the same, and even though there was still a quarter of the match to go the 24-point margin looked too much to make up.
And so it proved, despite one late North break that brought the crowd briefly to life, and Saints will have to wait and see how the rest of the weekend’s results go to see where fate takes them in April.
14mins SAINTS Yellow card Hartley
15mins RACING Pen Machenaud 0-3
18mins RACING Pen Machenaud 0-6
23mins SAINTS Pen Myler 3-6
40mins RACING Try Imhoff 3-11
HALF-TIME SAINTS 3 RACING 11
41mins RACING Try Imhoff Con Machenaud 3-18
44mins RACING Try Lapeyre Con Machenaud 3-25
48mins SAINTS Try North 8-25
55mins RACING Yellow card Lapeyre
60mins RACING Try Roberts Con Dambielle 8-32
FULL-TIME SAINTS 8 RACING 32