This year’s Heineken Champions Cup will hopefully supply more vintage contests and for Northampton there is currently no escaping the bitter taste of disappointment. Bottom of the table after the first three rounds of the Premiership and now without a win in 11 games, the Saints were ahead with six minutes remaining only for a freak late try to gift Bordeaux a priceless opening night victory.
When Matthieu Jalibert’s attempted match-levelling penalty bounced away off an upright it momentarily seemed as if the Saints might be set to enjoy a much-needed change of luck. Instead the home defenders failed to react sufficiently quickly and the ball bounced straight up for the lurking Santiago Cordero to follow up and dive over, with Jalibert’s conversion compounding Northampton’s pain.
Given Bordeaux lost two players to the sin-bin in the second half it was a result which did little to improve the mood of the home coach Chris Boyd. “We’re finding new ways to lose,” admitted Boyd. “We shouldn’t have been in that situation, we had more than enough opportunities. We know what to do, we’re just not doing it. It’s frustrating. I don’t think we lacked confidence, we just lacked consistent execution.”
With little margin for error in this season’s restructured tournament, Boyd has already indicated he will field a weakened side against Leinster in Dublin next week, recognising that it will now be seriously hard for the Saints to reach the last eight. The competition organisers will be less than thrilled but Northampton are increasingly not in a position to mess about.
Despite easing into a 9-3 lead inside the first 27 minutes courtesy of Dan Biggar’s boot there always seemed half a chance that the Saints might end up being overhauled. The visitors stole three lineouts in the first half alone and there was no doubt about which of the two packs held the advantage in the scrums. Northampton also had to be constantly wary of Cordero, the Argentinian winger who has also enjoyed a productive spell with Exeter Chiefs. The diminutive Puma slalomed his way past several home forwards and looked set to set up his captain Mahamadou Diaby for the first try only for the final pass to go astray.
It ensured the two teams were still locked at 9-9 at half-time, hardly the comfortable cushion Northampton would have been hoping for. In front of the watching England coach Eddie Jones, Alex Mitchell’s kicking from the base of the scrum was consistently good but for all Biggar’s promptings and Taqele Naiyaravoro’s power, their best chance of a try came when Shaun Adendorff broke clear but the supporting George Furbank could not gather a tricky offload from Naiyaravoro down around his shins.
Furbank might also have wished to revisit the moment early in the second half when he opted to hold on to the ball five metres out rather than invite the lurking Naiyaravoro to force his way over in the left corner. Biggar’s fourth penalty did nudge the Saints back in front but the visitors, reduced to 14 men by the sin-binning of the excellent Cameron Woki, were successfully able to weather a prolonged period of pressure close to their own line.
Bordeaux, however, were also finding attacking rhythm elusive. Even when they were building a promising position deep in the Saints’ half and had a penalty advantage for collapsing a maul, the visiting scrum-half Maxime Lucu went digging for the ball with his boot and was yellow carded for treading on Courtney Lawes’s arm. It could have been the turning point but, even with their international contingent available, Northampton are proving increasingly adept at snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.