The revival continues. Northampton’s hopes in Europe have long gone, along with most of the dignity they bore into this season, but they have salvaged what little of that they had left and made it into a little more. Their realistic ambitions for the rest of this season may not extend much beyond scrapping their way back into this very competition for next, but a scratchy, desperate win last week has been followed up by this classy effort against the French champions.
By the end, every collision and decision was going their way. Clermont still have their destiny in their own hands – a win next week at home to the Ospreys will certainly see them through – but the injury-ravaged Frenchmen here ended up looking shaky, as they have proved in domestic rugby this season, rather than in the imperious form they have shown in Europe.
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Clermont may be meandering along in 10th in the Top 14 this season, but they are dominating in Europe as if they have not a care in the world. Their astonishing dismantling of Saracens before Christmas still resonates and did not bode well for Saints, given the dismantlings they’ve suffered against the very same.
Sure enough, straight from the kick-off, Clermont idly worked through the phases for a minute or so, before Benjamin Kayser suddenly worked Remi Grosso clear down the left, and the leggy winger showed himself to be long of arm as well when he reached out of Ahsee Tuala’s tackle for a try in the second minute.
They had a second, too, by the end of the first quarter, even more extravagant. Nick Abendanon combined with Peter Betham down the right to put Isaiah Toeava away. He won the race to the corner. What is left of the Franklin’s Gardens faithful this season asked questions of the last pass – as, quite passionately, did Dylan Hartley – but the referee was perfectly in line and invoked the law of momentum.
It was an invigorating encounter, the pressure pretty much off both teams, albeit for diametrically different reasons, Northampton even deader to this tournament than Clermont are sure to qualify. The Saints replied smartly to Clermont’s first try with a period of pressure, which reached its climax when Api Ratuniyarawa and Tom Wood broke Clermont’s defence, before Nic Groom’s long pass put Teimana Harrison into the corner.
Northampton were struggling with Clermont’s scrum, yielding a penalty to it on the half-hour, but they handled the visitors’ driven lineouts well enough and struck with a second just before the break. Ben Foden’s cross-kick bounced nicely for Nafi Tuitavake, who stepped Peter Betham for the try. Harry Mallinder hit the post with the conversion, as he had the first time.
He hit the post a third time a couple of minutes into the second half, but this time it went in-off for three points to reduce the deficit to two. And then Northampton – or more specifically their sweet-singing winger, Ben Foden – hit their purest note yet. Foden pounced on a loose ball on his 10-metre line and was away, using Ken Pisi expertly as a dummy runner. Sixty metres later he was in at the corner, and Mallinder converted from the touchline.
Two Parra penalties had Clermont back in the lead on the hour, but Mallinder was in the zone now. His cross-kick was missed by Grosso, under pressure from Rob Horne, and Pisi was able to scramble the loose ball over the line to the TMO’s satisfaction. Mallinder, of course, landed the conversion from out wide.
The momentum was truly with the Saints now – and, who knows, for maybe the rest of the season. They saw off an attacking Clermont scrum and within seconds were pressing again in the right corner. From a ruck a few metres out, Cobus Reinach, the replacement scrum-half, sniped over for their fifth. Mallinder converted from the touchline, and the result was sealed, if not Clermont’s destiny.