Northampton 14 Racing 92 45
A penny for Warren Gatland’s thoughts. Afforded the freedom of Franklin’s Gardens, Finn Russell delved into his box of magic tricks and produced a masterful performance to steer Racing 92 to an emphatic victory over Northampton.
It may not be an entirely fair comparison given Dan Biggar was feeding off scraps but when Russell is in this mood you cannot but wonder what might have been had he worn the British & Irish Lions No 10 jersey against South Africa last summer.
He produced the telling pass for four of Racing’s five tries and carved Northampton open with his cunning and craft. It helps to be the linchpin of a side that boasts so much star power and on this evidence Racing 92, the three-times Champions Cup runners-up, are going to take some stopping this season. One walloping does not make a winter but the English challenge in Europe is off to an inauspicious start and to compound matters for Northampton, Biggar limped off in considerable pain early in the second half.
Facing the team who scored the most tries and the most points last season, despite going out in the quarter-finals, Northampton needed a solid start to settle themselves. They managed precisely the opposite with the hooker Sam Matavesi inexplicably attempting a chip over the defence near his own line. He was charged down by the excellent Yoan Tanga and though disaster was averted – the Racing number eight could not ground the ball – the tone had been set.
Five minutes into the match and Maxime Machenaud had notched two penalties. Three minutes later and Racing had their first try – Russell prising open the shellshocked Northampton defence by exchanging passes with Kurtley Beale before releasing Wenceslas Lauret to burst over. Machenaud converted for an ominously early 13-0 lead.
Northampton had not been out of their half hitherto and though they carved themselves promising positions at times, already there was an air of panic about them. They kicked to the corner when Biggar really should have gone for goal and found themselves further behind when the Racing pack bulldozed their way to another breakdown penalty – Machenaud on target again.
Russell was again the provider for Racing's second try, once more creating the gap with an inside pass to Juan Imhoff, who had the pace to dart under the posts. A few moments earlier Russell had demonstrated his delicate touch with a fine chip over the top after Northampton had again coughed the ball up cheaply. When Machenaud converted Imhoff's try Racing were ticking along at a point a minute.
Northampton registered their first points just before the half hour with Courtnall Skosan finishing off a fine move – in which Matt Proctor was prominent in the build-up – but Racing responded with try number three and a second for Imhoff, with Russell once again the creator.
Racing had built up a head of steam with a driving maul and had the penalty advantage when Russell floated an inch-perfect pass to Beale – every bit as measured as that unforgettable bit of skill against England at Murrayfield – before the Australian released Imhoff on the left. Machenaud could not convert this team, meaning Racing took a 21-point lead into the half-time interval.
Less than two minutes into the second half and Russell was at it again, this time showing his running skills by slaloming down the right wing before freeing Lauret for his second try with a sumptuous offload. Biggar limped off soon after but Northampton, to their credit, responded with a try under the posts through Fraser Dingwall.
Machenaud added another penalty and Lauret had his hat-trick when Racing and Russell again demonstrated their ability to move through the gears – the Scot freeing Gael Fickou, who breached the Northampton line before finding the supporting Tanga, who shipped on to his fellow backrow. That Lewis Ludlam's determined solo score was chalked off only summed up Saints' night. – Guardian
NORTHAMPTON: G Furbank; T Freeman, M Proctor, F Dingwall, C Skosan; D Biggar, A Mitchell; N Auterac, S Matavesi, E Painter; D Ribbans, A Ratuniyarawa; K Wilkins, L Ludlam, L Augustus.
Replacements: O Sleightholme for Proctor, R Hutchinson for Biggar (both 45), A Waller for Auterac, T Wood for Wilkins (both 48), J Fish for Matavesi (50), F Lomani for Mitchell (55), C Carey for Painter (56), A Coles for Ribbans (68).
RACING 92: K Beale; T Thomas, V Vakatawa, G Fickou, J Imhoff; F Russell, M Machenaud; G Gogichashvili, T Baubigny, A Oz; L Jones, A Bresler; W Lauret, I Diallo, Y Tanga.
Replacements: V Moreaux for Jones (53), E Ben Arous for Gogichashvili, C Gomes Sa for Oz (both 55), B Chouzenoux for Bresler (62), D Taofifenua for Thomas, C Chat for Baubigny (both 64), A Gibert for Machenaud, H Chavancy for Diallo (both 74).
Referee: Mike Adamson (SRFU).