Good luck driving around Leinster these days without being reminded what province you’re in!
The atmosphere is building every day before Saturday’s big match in Cardiff, and it is of course wonderful to see such excitement for the great game of rugby union amongst those who many not regularly follow the sport.
But all the talk around here seems to be of Leinster and their star-studded names like O’Driscoll, Sexton & D’Arcy, and those of a less superstitious nature seem to be of the opinion that it is a virtual certainty that the blue-clad fans will be celebrating a Heineken Cup victory once Roman Poite blows for full-time.
So to provide a measure of balance, I thought I’d devote my weekly article here on SportsNews Ireland to our opponents on the day, the Northampton Saints, and show that in every respect Joe Schmidt’s men will have their work cut out for them in the final.
First up, I have to hold up my hand admit that I had no idea where Northampton was before this week. Though I do know enough about English geography to presume it’s absolutely nowhere near Southampton! Apparently the Saints’ home ground Franklin’s Gardens is about an hour and a half’s drive north from Twickenham along the M1.
Their rugby team is called the “Saints” because the club was originally formed under the name “Northampton St James” – in fact, some die-hard fans still affectionately refer to them as the “Jimmies”!
Clearly the Saints’ biggest moment came in 2000 when thanks to a missed late penalty by Ronan O’Gara they lifted the Heineken Cup at Twickenham for the first and only time. They were unable to build on that success, however, and a steady decline from there culminated in relegation from the Premiership in 2007.
That’s when Jim Mallinder took over, and from there things were back on the up. He had previously been at the Sale Sharks, whom he led from 11th in England’s top tier to 2nd and their first ever Heineken Cup qualification in 2002 as well as success in what is now known as the Amlin Challenge Cup.
After leading the Saints straight back up at the first attempt and capturing the EDF Trophy the same season, he then lifted the Amlin again the following year which returned the Saints to Europe’s top table. The trophies weren’t to end there as they lifted the LV= Cup in 2010, and only went out of the Heineken in the quarterfinal stage to Munster at Thomond Park, no shame there.
As you can see, Mallinder has brought quite a culture of success to Franklin’s Gardens in a relatively short period of time. And you only need look at England’s Six Nations Championship winning team to see which players helped him get it done.
At full-back, Ben Foden is known as “Pops” because he once missed training to audition for Pop Idol. But although he may never live that down, he has still evolved into a dangerous counter-attacking full-back and his head-to-head with Isa Nacewa will be one of the more interesting matchups on the day.
Then of course there’s Chris Ashton, recently in the news for being on the receiving end of a piledriver of a punch from Manu Tuilagi, but much better known for his trademark “star dive” to finish off his try-scoring. True, the dive may be annoying to opposing fans who are dying for him to drop it, but it’s hard to ignore the fact that he has the time to finish like that because of the incredible line he runs though the centre coming off his right wing.
In the forwards, though Leinster may have an all-star front row themselves, they should meet their match with the Saints, particularly hooker Dylan Hartley, who is a dab hand at, as the saying goes, “putting himself about”. The scrum battle could very well prove decisive at the Millennium Stadium. And behind Hartley, one of the emerging stars of their campaign has been lock Courtney Lawes who has surely played his way onto the plane for the World Cup already.
Biggest blow for the Saints has to be the loss of number 6 Tom Wood, who arrived last summer from Worcester. Their back row was already up against it facing O’Brien, Jennings & Heaslip, but it could be said Wood has been the key ingredient in getting them two extra rounds past their quarterfinal exit last season. After making his England debut against Wales to open the Six Nations, he kept the jersey throughout the tournament and was very unlucky to pick up an injury against Gloucester which effectively ended his season.
So while of course I’ll be wearing as much blue as I can on Saturday as I cheer Joe Schmidt’s men in Kiely’s of Donnybrook (sadly I’m unable to travel), I’m under no illusions that the Northampton Saints will be a tough nut to crack in Cardiff.
Which leads me to my prediction, and despite everything I have said so far by way of “bigging up” our opposition, I just can’t ignore the awesome nature of the Leinster defence. Northampton may be unbeaten so far, but with all due respect to the teams they have beaten, they don’t match the calibre of Saracens, Clermont, Racing Metro, Leicester and of course Toulouse.
Leinster always seem to find a way to rise to the bar set by their opposition this season, and I have no reason to believe they won’t do it again Saturday. So it’s with a hopefully cautious optimism that I plump for a blue victory by six points.
For those that might know, If Leinster do win then Connacht will make their first ever appearance in the Heineken cup next season.
Wherever you are on Saturday evening, enjoy the occasion, for it’s the best European club rugby has to offer. Here’s hoping for my fourteenth correct prediction in a row on this column!!!
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