Northampton Saints beaten in 13-try Challenge Cup thriller
A spirited second-half fightback was not enough to prevent Northampton Saints from exiting the Challenge Cup at the quarter-final stage after a 13-try classic against Clermont.
In a topsy-turvy game at the Marcel-Michelin, the hosts had appeared on course for a comfortable win as they led 30-3 after 48 minutes.
But seemingly dead and buried, 15 points from Rory Hutchinson pulled Northampton within distance of a remarkable comeback win.
Damian Penaud, Peter Betham and Tim Nanai-Williams then broke Saints hearts with late efforts as the French side recovered their composure to run out 61-38 winners and set up a semi-final against Harlequins.
Plenty of fight, quality and passion, but Saints are muscled out of Europe by a side that would have looked right at home in today’s Champions Cup quarters
Bon match, @ASMOfficiel 👏🏼
— Northampton Saints 😇 (@SaintsRugby) March 31, 2019
Remarkably – given what was to follow later – it took 20 minutes for the first try of the game, centre Peter Betham breaking clear to bag his eighth try in this season’s competition.
One of two hat-trick heroes along with Betham, Penaud then grabbed his opening score of the evening, pouncing on a stray pass to sprint clear.
The tries kept coming for the home side, and they had their third soon after when Taqele Naiyaravoro was yellow-carded for a no-arms tackle on Arthur Iturria and George Clancy awarded a penalty try.
Clermont were good value for their 19-point lead at the interval, and continued where they left off upon their return.
They further extended their lead when Camille Lopez’s smart cross-field kick was captured by Penaud, who raced down the right before freeing Betham for his second.
The risk for the visitors was that they would be unable to recover from what seemed to be a decisive blow, however in true Northampton fashion, the response was impressive.
Substitute Ahsee Tuala crossed after stunning wing play from Jamie Gibson and star man Hutchinson, with Penaud’s slick effort sandwiched in between another Saints score, this time for replacement Luther Burrell.
Hutchinson converted his own try and another replacement, Alex Mitchell, dotted down as the Gallagher Premiership Rugby side threatened a seismic turnaround.
But Greig Laidlaw calmed home nerves with a penalty and Nanai-Williams dashed over to widen the gap once more.
By this point, all semblance of structure had long gone. Electric wing duo Penaud and Betham both sealed their hat-tricks before the end, with Alexander Moon sniping over for a consolation effort for Saints as chaos reigned.
Victors Clermont will now face another English side in Harlequins next month in the last four, while Sale Sharks travel to play Bristol Bears’ conquerors La Rochelle.