Northampton secured a home tie in the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup with a comfortable 23-12 victory over an under-strength Castres at Stade Pierre-Antoine.
Tries from man-of-the-match Joe Ansbro, Phil Dowson and Ben Foden ensured the Saints go through to the knock-out stage as one of the top four seeds, as well as recording a 100% record in Pool One – the first English team to do so since Bath in 2002.
No team, however, has ever won the competition – or even reached the final – after winning all their group games.
Castres put up a brave fight, with tries from Pierre Bernard and Sebastien Tillous-Borde, but it was not enough to protect their unbeaten home record.
The Saints travelled to France knowing victory would hand them a home tie, having already secured a quarter-final spot with a 37-0 victory against Edinburgh last weekend.
The visitors put out a strong side, with Mark Sorenson the only change from the Edinburgh triumph – the lock forward replacing Christian Day.
Castres had seen their slim hopes of progressing evaporate with defeat in Cardiff last weekend and, with an important Top 14 clash against Stade Francais coming up on Thursday, the hosts made 10 changes – resting six of their key players, including Romain Teulet and France winger Marc Andreu.
Castres have made the Pierre-Antoine a fortress and were yet to be beaten at home in any competition this campaign.
They were resolutely defending that record tonight as the Saints started brightly. The best of the early chances fell to Foden in the seventh minute but he was brought down just before the tryline.
However, it did not take long for Saints to take the lead as, in the 10th minute, Roger Wilson picked out Ansbro and the Scotland international found some space down the right to race clear, evading the Castres defenders to touch down. Fly-half Stephen Myler missed the conversion.
Castres upped the pressure and managed to force a scrum right on the Northampton line but it came to nothing and they almost found themselves further behind in the 22nd minute with almost an exact copy of the earlier try, but Vincent Inigo was on hand to snuff out the danger.
The Saints did extend their lead minutes later with a drop goal by Myler, but they were not finding it as easy as they might have expected on a cold night in the South of France.
Snow started drifting down as the visitors extended their advantage further thanks to Ansbro’s surging run from deep, with the 20-year-old running most of the length of the field before the ball was moved wide for Dowson to cross, Myler adding the extras for a 15-0 lead.
The hosts got back in the game on the half-hour mark as the impressive Tillous-Borde’s pass allowed Bernard to score Castres’ first try, which the fly-half converted.
The hosts came out after the break in determined fashion and the Saints were forced deep into their own half.
Castres’ sustained pressure almost paid off but Bernard just failed to ground the ball over the line after he had been picked out well by Matthieu Nicolas.
But the outcome was all but decided shortly before the hour when Foden raced clear to score Saints’ third try of the game after more excellent work from Ansbro, although Myler was once again wide of the mark with the conversion.
Castres made a host of changes – including bringing on France prop Luc Ducalcon – but it made little difference and the Saints went further in front in the 72nd minute with a Myler penalty.
The hosts were denied a second try when referee Peter Fitzgibbon ruled that Tillous-Borde had been held up over the line, but the scrum-half did succeed seconds later when he crossed in the corner.