Tom Vickers’ Northampton Saints v Castres review and player ratings

PICK OF THE BUNCH - Courtney Lawes (Pictures: Linda Dawson/Fatima Mirzai)

PICK OF THE BUNCH - Courtney Lawes (Pictures: Linda Dawson/Fatima Mirzai)

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If there is to be no Heineken Cup next season, one small crumb of comfort will be that Saints won’t have to meet Castres again.

Because of the eight meetings between the sides in the past four seasons, very few have been memorable affairs.

The French team have represented a sizeable stumbling block for Saints, who have failed to make it out of the pool stages in the past three campaigns.

When they did progress to the last eight, in the 2010/11 season, they won in France as part of a 100 per cent pool stage record on the road to the final at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff.

They won’t be back there this year, though, and one of the reasons for that is the French resistance.

Jim Mallinder gave an honest assessment of his team’s travails after Friday night’s turgid win against Castres at Franklin’s Gardens.

He said the lack of an Italian side in the pool proved pivotal. And he’s right as the best runner-up spots will go to teams in the pools containing Zebre and Treviso.

But the presence of Castres has proved even more important, because had they not seen off Saints in round one and stopped them getting a try bonus point at the Gardens it would be an entirely different story.

As it is, the next trip on the European agenda is set to be one with an Amlin Challenge Cup flavour.

That will taste sour for now, but come April it will be another chance to win silverware.

It wasn’t what Saints, who have won 16 of their 20 games in all competitions this season, were hoping for as they, rightly, target the biggest pots these days.

They should have beaten Castres away and they should not have lost so heavily to Leinster at the Gardens.

But then you may not have thought they would win in Dublin and proceed to hold Ospreys at arm’s length in Swansea.

It has been a six-game campaign of peaks and troughs, with plenty of points in the lessons learned column.

Unfortunately, once more, Castres have helped ensure there aren’t quite enough points in the column that matters most.

How they rated...

FA’ATOINA AUTAGAVAIA

Looked a little unsteady early on, but was fairly sound defensively on his first start for Saints... 6

KEN PISI

Came in at the last minute for Jamie Elliott and had an early sight of the tryline, but it was not an easy night for the wingers... 6

GEORGE PISI

Finally got Saints on the scoresheet and was a physical presence in the midfield, putting in another accomplished performance... 7

LUTHER BURRELL

Looked strong once again, but was unable to use his immense power to blast holes in the Castres rearguard, which stood strong... 6

GEORGE NORTH

Wasn’t able to provide the spark he has so often in recent weeks, but still tried to get involved in the game and put his body on the line... 6

STEPHEN MYLER

Slotted the two penalties that came his way, but was slightly off with a couple of kicks from hand... 6

LEE DICKSON

Scrum-halves struggled to thrive in a physical game, though Dickson tried to add some nous to an encounter that was more about power than panache... 6

ALEX WALLER

Handed an England Saxons call on the day of the game, and definitely deserves it. Did well at the breakdown and in the scrum... 7

DYLAN HARTLEY

Has been so influential in recent weeks and again stood up to be counted here as Saints tried to outmuscle the French side... 7

SALESI MA’AFU

Did his bit in the scrum before coming off early in the second half as Saints looked to freshen things up in a draining battle... 6

COURTNEY LAWES - CHRON STAR MAN

Managed to push Castres back with some big surges and was the pick of a home pack that got through a huge amount of work... 7

CHRISTIAN DAY

Made a couple of good breaks and was an important presence on the field once more as Saints eventually got their own way... 7

CALUM CLARK

Will join Alex Waller and Sam Dickinson in the England Saxons squad and has been in good form of late. Did some good work at the breakdown again... 6

TOM WOOD

Rivaled Courtney Lawes for the star man honour as he put in a number of key hits and upped the intensity levels... 7

SAMU MANOA

Tried to break the Castres resistance and stood tall in defence as the French side only managed to register one penalty... 7

Replacements (who played more than 20 minutes)

GARETH DENMAN (for Ma’afu 51)

Will surely play more minutes during the upcoming LV= Cup weeks and acquitted himself well... 6

PHIL DOWSON (for Clark 54)

Added some experience to the side, helping them be a bit more patient in the build-up against a solid Castres outfit... 6

KAHN FOTUALI’I (for Dickson 55)

Added some flair to proceedings and one clever offload helped confuse Castres to win Saints a penalty which put them ahead. A class act... 7