Northampton Saints 20 Clermont Auvergne 41: Tom Vickers' review and player ratings

Teimana Harrison tried to steer Saints to victory but Clermont were simply too strong (pictures: Kelly Cooper)
Teimana Harrison tried to steer Saints to victory but Clermont were simply too strong (pictures: Kelly Cooper)

At Saints' weekly media day in the build-up to Saturday's clash with Clermont Auvergne, Teimana Harrison talked openly.

The affable flanker sat in the Barwell Stand sun and gave a typically honest appraisal of all things black, green and gold.

On the agenda was Saints' new European surroundings: the Challenge Cup.

Not since 2008 had the club started the season in that competition, having for so long dined at the top table of European rugby.

But during the past few seasons, the banquet didn't taste quite so sweet.

After heroic wins at citadels owned by sides such as Ulster and Leinster in years gone by, those big wins started to become few and far between.

In fact, big defeats became the unsavoury staple diet, especially last season.

Saracens tortured Saints in two European fixtures - as well as two league matches - last season, while even Ospreys inflicted two sizeable defeats on Northampton.

It led Harrison to admit last week that his club had been 'out of our depth' in the Champions Cup for a few seasons.

So a change of surroundings, Harrison said, was a 'welcome change'.

But unfortunately, on Saturday it was much more of the same.

It might have been the Challenge Cup, but Clermont brought a squad that wouldn't just be at home in the Champions Cup - it would fancy its chances of winning it.

After last year's Top 14 blip, when Clermont finished ninth - which is where Saints finished in the Premiership - the French giants are back with a vengeance.

Doing their best Arnold Schwarzenegger impression, the ridiculously muscular men from Stade Marcel Michelin currently top their domestic league.

They have clearly used last season's setbacks to fuel the fire, and they certainly ignited their European campaign on Saturday, pouring cold water on the Franklin's Gardens flames.

Chris Boyd's men didn't start badly, but once Clermont took control, their iron grip only grew stronger.

It was a stampede in the scrum, as Saints were sent backwards at an alarming rate during the first half.

That provided the platform on which Clermont built, with ex-Leicester back Peter Betham finishing well on two occasions and super-sub Perceli Yato scoring the first of his two tries.

In the second half, it was too familiar a European tale for Saints as the game continued to get away from them, with tries flooding in before they scored two of their own.

Sadly, Saints were out of their depth again, against a gargantuan side who seem to effortlessly ally silk with immense steel.

Clermont are a team with a big budget who have used it well.

Saints are a team with a far smaller budget who, over recent years, have not.

Clermont boast an array of world stars.

Saints named a matchday squad that possesses a few but is also padded out with up-and-coming, homegrown talents.

In fact, 11 of Saints' matchday 23 came through the club's Academy.

Whereas Saints have to build success over a period of time, Clermont are able to buy it in a much shorter spell.

That is not to say that they are not coached and nurtured exceptionally well. Of course they are.

But Saints need a squad that is all on the same page, built by the same group of coaches over several years and playing at the top of its game to compete at the very top level.

That was what they had when they reached the Heineken Cup final in 2011.

And that is what they had when they did a memorable double in 2014.

But what they have now is some new coaches, seven games into their competitive Saints career, and players assembled by the previous regimes.

It will take Boyd and Co a couple of years to truly stamp their authority on this club.

But in rugby, time waits for no man.

And at the start of this season, the coaches are trying to get the best from, as new scrum coach Matt Ferguson described it, 'the ingredients' they have 'in the fridge'.

That is not to say there is not talent in this squad. There is.

Dylan Hartley, James Haskell, Dan Biggar to name but a few are seasoned internationals.

But Saints are meeting sides who are much further along on their own journey, and instant success is extremely difficult to achieve.

That is not to say they can't be competitive, and the hope is that they will get more and more competitive as the campaign goes on.

But even the most together, settled and skilful side would have struggled to cope with Clermont on Saturday.

It is a harsh reality and one that is difficult for supporters, players and coaches to accept.

What they certainly won't accept is the kind of basic errors that have blighted their team at times this season.

And in that department they certainly will, and should, expect to do better.

High balls have proved a particular problem throughout the seven matches and silly disciplinary errors continue to cost Saints.

Those are things that shouldn't take too much time to iron out.

But the big things, like overall squad strength, playing to a particular, well-drilled game plan and eventually getting back among England and Europe's elite, will require real patience.

And Saturday's defeat was certainly another sobering reminder of that.

How they rated...

HARRY MALLINDER

Looked lively for the three minutes when he wasn't suffering with injury and had to come off just two minutes later, forcing Saints into an early back line reshuffle

AHSEE TUALA
Moved to full-back early on and Clermont are not a team you want to be at 15 against as they ran at Saints from all angles... 4

ANDREW KELLAWAY
Has settled in well at Saints and he continued to do everything in his power to put pressure on Clermont in an energetic showing... 6

It was a hugely physical clash at Franklin's Gardens

It was a hugely physical clash at Franklin's Gardens

PIERS FRANCIS
His superb break opened the door for David Ribbans to score late in the game, but that was the only say the centre was able to really have... 5

TOM COLLINS
Looked like the most threatening Saints back with ball in hand as his pace and agility caused problems for a big Clermont side. Scored a tidy breakaway try... 6

DAN BIGGAR
Not an easy day for the half-backs as Clermont bossed possession and the game, but this man kicked reasonably well and didn't shy away from the physical battle... 6

COBUS REINACH
Wasn't able to get into the game as Clermont got stuck into him quickly whenever he tried to pull the strings... 4

ALEX WALLER
Looked decent around the park but he and his fellow Saints forwards were always going to be up against it on a day when Clermont brought their A game... 4

DYLAN HARTLEY
Has started the season in decent fashion, looking determined to drive the new era at Saints, but Clermont made life tough for them... 5

EHREN PAINTER
A great learning experience for the young prop as he took on far more experienced operators who showed their class... 4

DAVID RIBBANS
Once again forced his way over the line for Saints, refusing to give up at any point as his strong start to the season continued... 5

DOM BARROW
A really difficult day on which to make his competitive debut, especially as he had not played since the first game of pre-season... 4

JAMES HASKELL
Looked hungry for action, having missed a couple of games through injury, getting through a decent amount of work as he tried to combat Clermont's big men... 6

LEWIS LUDLAM
Made one key intervention to stop Isaia Toeava in his tracks during the first half, but Clermont stopped the flanker having a say at the breakdown... 6

TEIMANA HARRISON
Was picked out for praise by boss Chris Boyd after the game, having put in another huge shift in Saints colours... 7

Replacements (who played more than 20 minutes)

LUTHER BURRELL (for Mallinder 5)

Tried to throw his weight around, but the pressure Clermont put on Saints' backs forced errors... 5

BEN FRANKS (for Painter 53)
With fewer scrums during the second period, this man was not worked as hard as the player who he replaced but he made a couple of tackles and carries... 5

ALEX MOON (for Barrow 53)
Got a feel for the heat of the Clermont defence as he knocked on at one point, but this, as for his fellow Saints youngsters, was a useful learning curve... 5

ALEX MITCHELL (for Reinach 53)
Saints scrum-halves were lambs to the slaughter as Clermont targeted them well and stopped them from having any space in which to flourish... 5

MIKE HAYWOOD (for Hartley 58)
Did his best to help to turn the tide, but it was far too late as Clermont flew to a convincing victory... 5

JAMIE GIBSON (for Haskell 58)
A difficult time to come into the game as Clermont were really starting to turn the screw, and the back row felt the full force... 5

CHRON STAR MAN - Peter Betham (Clermont Auvergne)

Andrew Kellaway was in the thick of the action

Andrew Kellaway was in the thick of the action

Piers Francis didn't have too much space to work with

Piers Francis didn't have too much space to work with