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 lynchpin of a side that boasts so much star power – the outstanding flanker Wenceslas Lauret finished with a hat-trick 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. To compound matters for Northampton, Biggar limped off in considerable pain early in the second half and is a doubt for next Friday’s match at Ulster.

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“I can’t fault the intent, we tried hard but at times we we’re naive, sloppy, at times we were in trouble physically,” said Northampton’s director of rugby Chris Boyd. “We just didn’t get enough of our game on the field, we conceded too many points early and we didn’t stay in the hunt to threaten for long enough at all.”

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 charged down inexplicably attempting a chip over the defence near his own line.

Five minutes into the match and Maxime Machenaud had scored 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 Lauret to burst over. Machenaud converted for an ominously early 13-0 lead. Machenaud was on target with another penalty before Russell created 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. When Machenaud converted Racing were ticking along at a point a minute.

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Juan Imhoff dives between the posts to score Racing’s second try. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho/Shutterstock

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 buildup – but Racing responded with try No 3 and a second for Imhoff, with Russell once again the architect. 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 time, 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 third 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 back-row. That Lewis Ludlam’s determined solo score was chalked off summed up Saints’ night.

“Just about everybody in that [Racing] team have played Test match rugby and some of them are world-class,” added Boyd. They’ve never won it and I know the club is desperate to win it and they’ve got a roster that could threaten. When you play against a player like Finn Russell it’s not him you’ve got to get at, it’s the ball that he gets [but] he’s a quality player.”