Tom Vickers’ Castres Olympique v Northampton Saints preview

RIVALRY RENEWED - Saints and Castres clash again in the Heineken Cup on Saturday (picture by Linda Dawson)
RIVALRY RENEWED - Saints and Castres clash again in the Heineken Cup on Saturday (picture by Linda Dawson)

Saints fans may just have a touch of déjà vu as the curtain lifts on this season’s Heineken Cup.

Castres away. Again. The fourth successive season the French outfit and Northampton have faced off in Europe’s premier rugby competition.

Saints will need to do better than they did at Castres in the second game of the previous campaign, when they skidded to a 21-16 defeat in rain-soaked Toulouse.

It put them on the back foot as they slipped on a banana skin of a pool that had a similar make-up to the one they face this year.

Castres and clashes with teams from the RaboDirect PRO12, including an Irish double-header in December. It’s all very familiar.

But this year’s test is probably even more acidic than the one Saints faced last time round, when they failed to make it out of the pool for the second season in succession.

Ospreys, with a pack brimming with British & Irish Lions stars, are a few steps up from Glasgow Warriors.

While RaboDirect PRO12 and Amlin Challenge Cup champions Leinster are probably a tougher proposition than Ulster.

Ominous? You bet.

But then Saints, who are as long as 25-1 to win the tournament, are an improved outfit from last time round.

There is a far more balanced look to the team this year, with the power of the pack in equilibrium with the excitement of the backs.

George North has added extra belief and increased firepower, while we are yet to see what Kahn Fotuali’i can really do as he aims to wrestle the No.9 shirt off Lee Dickson.

Fotuali’i was certainly a star in the Heineken Cup last season and could yet be again.

The team that travels to France this weekend is far stronger than the one that faced Castres across the Channel last October.

On that occasion, Stephen Myler was a makeshift full-back in the absence of Ben Foden and James Wilson, with Ryan Lamb lining up at 10.

Other starters included Vasily Artemyev, who is currently consigned to Wanderers duty, and Rhys Oakley, who was released during the summer.

No offence to those players, but the current first-team crop can claim to be a vast enhancement.

And they will need to show it, as Saints simply cannot afford to crash to defeat at Castres this weekend.

It would place huge emphasis on the game at home to Ospreys eight days later and those potentially decisive December showdowns with Leinster.

Saints know exactly what that pressure can do as they were then crushed 25-6 by Ulster in Northampton before pulling a rabbit out of the hat in a 10-9 win in Belfast a week later.

But, eventually, they had too much to do and a defeat in Scotland on the final day deprived them of the consolation of Challenge Cup rugby.

This time, they need to take control of their destiny from the outset. To show the other big-hitters in this powerhouse pool that they mean business.

A win at the Stade Pierre-Antoine, where Castres remain unbeaten this season, would do just that.

And it would also put a stop to those pesky previous season flashbacks.