Dan Biggar guided Northampton to a comfortable Champions Cup victory over Lyon with an imperious display in his first appearance since the World Cup. The fly-half showed no signs of a hangover from Wales’s run to the World Cup semi-finals, kicking 20 points as Northampton outclassed the Top 14 leaders.
Rory Hutchinson scored Northampton’s only try of an ill-tempered match but Biggar’s control and the influence of returning England forwards Courtney Lawes and Lewis Ludlam proved too much for Lyon, who failed to show anything like their domestic form. Not that Northampton will care too much about that.
This was evidently a match they had targeted as key to their hopes of progressing through a pool also containing last season’s beaten finalists Leinster and Benetton and they set about the task from the opening whistle. Lyon, on the other hand, were hopeless in the first half. Beyond flinging the ball to Carl Fearns the Top 14 leaders looked bereft of ideas with the ball and horribly ill-disciplined without it. What’s more, their lineout was dreadful, their scrum only marginally better and quite how they failed to score when Hutchinson flung a pass to Charlie Ngatai remains a mystery.
The stadium was not as full as it often is, perhaps memories of the 62-14 loss to Saracens in their last outing in the competition back in January 2018 kept a few supporters at home, but this Northampton side are unrecognisable for the better under Chris Boyd and have rarely had life so comfortable in European’s top competition. In mitigation for the visitors, this was not their strongest pack and they lost both their captain Jonathan Pélissié and the centre Pierre-Louis Barassi to injury inside the opening half hour, but when Northampton’s forwards can give their backs quick ball, Cobus Reinach and Biggar will always cause problems.
It took them 20 minutes to conjure their try but the writing had been on the wall – Biggar kicking two penalties through the posts and plenty more to the corner. He had a major hand in Hutchinson’s try too, showing delightfully quick hands to give the Scotland centre enough time to arc inside then out, slipping off the Lyon prop Clément Ric and wriggling free from Noa Nakaitaci.
By that stage, Lyon had been denied a try by the TMO, who ruled that Hutchinson’s knock-on, which allowed Pato Fernández to gather and race clear, had been preceded by one of his own from the visiting fly-half. If it was a marginal call it was the right one and they only had themselves to blame for butchering their next chance. Hutchinson is a delightful player to watch but he lives dangerously and his rank pass was picked off by Ngatai. He found his winger Josua Tuisova but when the Fijian popped the ball up it was gratefully regathered by Hutchinson.
Reinach then had one chalked off for Saints but two more Biggar penalties – Ludlam playing a key role in winning both of them – gave Northampton a commanding 19-0 lead at the break.
Northampton lost Piers Francis at half-time but picked up from where they left off with another Biggar penalty before Lyon lost Tuisova to a nastly-looking ankle injury after a fine covering tackle from Lawes.
Lyon, it must be said, were improved after the interval. They were energised by changing their entire front row, introducing the highly-rated Demba Bamba, and spent all of 10 minutes camped on the Northampton line with a series of scrum penalties. And eventually they scored their first try when, with Teimana Harrison in the sin-bin, Jonathan Wisniewski spotted Thibaut Regard all alone on the right and picked him out with a precise cross-field kick.
Another Biggar penalty pushed Northampton’s lead out to 18 before Lyon finally began to play with some urgency - Regard adding a second try - but the losing bonus point was not forthcoming and hardly deserved.