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Can Northampton stop Leinster in Heineken Cup final?

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Bryn Palmer | 08:58 UK time, Friday, 20 May 2011

On paper at least, the 16th Heineken Cup final has all the ingredients to be a classic.

Leinster and Northampton are two top-drawer sides, chock-full of Test stars, brimming with attacking talent, both eager to give full freedom of expression to their particular brands of positive, attractive rugby.

Cardiff's Millennium Stadium, nigh-on packed to capacity and hosting its fourth final in 10 years, should be in for a treat.

Victory for either side will see them join the elite band of clubs - Leicester, Wasps, Munster, plus four-times champions Toulouse - who have won the title on two or more occasions.

And while 2009 champions Leinster start marginal favourites, Saints - bidding to become the first side to go through a Heineken Cup campaign unbeaten after winning all six of their pool games - are far from outsiders.

Battered and bruised they may be after last weekend's gruelling Premiership semi-final defeat by Leicester, Northampton intend to use the lingering sense of injustice caused by Manu Tuilagi's non sending-off to their advantage on Saturday.

"Emotionally, you have to up it for a final and we have got to use that hurt and passion," says their captain, England hooker Dylan Hartley. "We have been fighting on two fronts but now we can say 'this is the last game', put everything into it and not leave anything to chance."

The tactical leanings of their opponents should also help Northampton rediscover the best of themselves, with England duo Ben Foden and Chris Ashton hoping to see more of the Millennium's wide open spaces than they did at Welford Road.

"It is a completely different challenge," noted Saints' director of rugby Jim Mallinder. "It is fairly clear that Leinster like to play with a quicker tempo. They have got some strong forwards but they are equally strong out wide. They are very keen on using their backs, particularly from first phase. We know we are going to be stretched at times and put under pressure. But we have faced that against other big sides and we have come through."

Certainly there is no shortage of European pedigree in the Saints camp.

Mallinder guided his former Sale side to victory in the second-tier European Challenge Cup (then known as the Parker Pen Shield) back in 2002, while Foden - playing on the wing - was part of the Sharks side that won it again in 2005. The England full-back and half of the current Saints team also triumphed in the same second-tier tournament two years ago, in their first season back in the Premiership.

They also have a previous Heineken Cup winner in their midst in the shape of assistant coach Paul Grayson. The former England fly-half was at full-back when a patched-up Saints won the trophy in 2000, kicking the three penalties that did for Munster at Twickenham.

Other members of that side have also been offering encouraging words this week, notably ex-England flanker Tim Rodber, who emailed the squad to remind them that winning the Heineken was his "greatest rugby moment".

Now a corporate bigwig in New York, Rodber is flying over to Cardiff to see if his beloved Saints can join Leicester and Wasps as two-time English winners - not that the current side need any reminders of past deeds to stir themselves for this one.


Northampton centre Jon Clarke scores their second try in the semi-final win over Perpignan

Clarke scored the second try in Saints' semi-final win over Perpignan. Picture: Getty

Outside centre Jon Clarke has been at the club for eight years, enduring the pain of relegation from the Premiership in 2007 and serious injury when he appeared on the verge of an England breakthrough.

While international recognition is still an ambition (the suspension of Tuilagi may give Clarke an opportunity in next month's Churchill Cup), Saturday will be the biggest occasion of his rugby life. And to top it all, his opposite number will be living legend Brian O'Driscoll.

"He is a world-class player playing really well, simple as that," states Clarke matter-of-factly. "Attacking-wise and defensively, he will destroy you if you let him get on the ball. The challenge is right there in front of my face and I have got to step up.

"If you want to be successful, the main stage is where you have to do it. Everyone is going to be watching, so if you want to make a name for yourself, this is the time.
"It is a great feeling, having been here quite a while, to have the chance to play in a Heineken Cup final. We have to look on it as our one chance. It might not ever happen again. It is a huge occasion for all of us."

Therein perhaps lies the potentially pivotal difference between Saturday's two teams.

Northampton, despite the impressive strides made in recent years and a burgeoning young side, cannot simply expect to rely on this experience becoming a regular ritual.

As a consequence of their success, they will be without at least six - possibly more - of their first-choice side, plus two or three of their summer recruits - for the opening six-to-eight weeks of next season, on duty at the World Cup.

While that may not prove an insurmountable handicap with a strong squad, competition on the Premiership front is intense, with seven or eight sides all contenders for a European place.

When the Test stars were away during this year's Six Nations, Saints lost four league games on the bounce to slip out of contention for a top-two finish and a home semi-final. On their return, they won five out of their last six, plus a Heineken Cup quarter-final with Ulster and semi-final against Perpignan.

"We had been struggling and put ourselves in a bit of bother but straightaway, when the internationals returned, we just carried on from where we had left off before they went away," noted Clarke, whose own form has benefited too.

Sure, Leinster, Munster and Welsh regions such as the Ospreys and Cardiff Blues suffer similarly when their international stars are away, and will do during and after the World Cup period, when players will return mentally and physically drained.

But without the threat of relegation and a relatively safe passage to Heineken Cup qualification the following year, the leading Magners League clubs can afford to be more sanguine about domestic matters, and gear their players' needs towards European competition.

Two-thirds of Leinster's side have already won a Heineken Cup final, against Leicester at Murrayfield two years ago. Eight of them were in the Ireland team that smashed England - including a quartet of Saints in Foden, Chris Ashton, Dylan Hartley and Tom Wood, the latter sadly unfit for Saturday - out of sight in the Six Nations finale two months ago.

Will that greater experience of handling the big-match occasion prove the difference on Saturday?


Leinster number eight Jamie Heaslip takes in the moment after their semi-final victory over Toulouse

Number eight Jamie Heaslip has become the focal point of the Leinster side. Picture: Getty

Leinster, for so long the bridesmaids in the Heineken Cup with five quarter or semi-final defeats in six years until they got it right in 2009, look well equipped to not just equal Munster's two titles with victory on Saturday, but go on to surpass their great provincial rivals.

Apart from departing lock Nathan Hines, all their main core of players have been retained for at least the next couple of years, including the talismanic O'Driscoll and number eight Jamie Heaslip.

Where once they had all the attacking flair behind the scrum but were flaky up front, now they are a team of all the talents, disposing of Leicester in the quarter-finals and four-time champions Toulouse in a pulsating Dublin semi-final.

In his first season as a head coach, New Zealander Joe Schmidt is on the verge of a domestic and European double, having also guided them into the Magners League final against Munster a week on Saturday.

"I think they have gone to another level," noted Saints boss Mallinder. "He has made them tougher up front; they compete and scrummage with the best teams, as well as having that attacking flair which Leinster have always had. I think he has given them an all-round game."

"Once they get into a pattern they seem impossible to stop," added Northampton's wrecking-ball prop Soane Tonga'uiha, who along with three Leinster players - Heaslip, flanker Sean O'Brien and full-back Isa Nacewa - has been short-listed for the ERC European Player of the Year award (with Stade Francais' Italian captain Sergio Parisse completing the nominees).

"We have got to stop them playing, disrupt them in the set-piece and try not to allow their big ball-carriers to get into the game."

Easier said than done, for Leinster - aided by the introduction of scrummaging coach Greg Feek, the former All Blacks prop - are a far more formidable proposition these days, with Mike Ross anchoring their set-piece, alongside South African hooker Richardt Strauss and the ever-improving Cian Healy.

If those three hold firm against the Saints front row of Tonga'uiha, Hartley and another South African, Brian Mujati, then Leinster - with O'Brien and Heaslip to the fore - may have the edge in the back-row battle.


Northampton's front row - from left - of Brian Mujati, Dylan Hartley and Soane Tonga'uiha - pack down

The Saints front row of (from left) Brian Mujati, Dylan Hartley and Soane Tonga'uiha will aim for dominance in the scrum. Picture: Getty

"Our pack likes the challenge that has been laid down for it," says Tonga'uiha, assessing a potentially riveting match-up at scrum-time. An area where Saints might fancy a bit of dominance then?

"If we do, it will take a long time to come," added the 6ft 5in, 23-stone powerhouse. "It is not going to take 40, 50, 60 minutes like in other matches. Leinster are going to stick with us the whole way and if we do get on top, it might not be until the last five minutes."

If the outcome is still in doubt at that stage, Saints will have done well in the eyes of most observers.

While their progress has been rapid - they won the European Challenge Cup in 2009 and the Anglo-Welsh LV=Cup last year - the transition from National League One champions to Heineken Cup winners in the space of three years may just prove one step beyond a still developing side.

But not by much.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    "But without the threat of relegation and a relatively safe passage to Heineken Cup qualification the following year, the leading Magners League clubs can afford to be more sanguine about domestic matters, and gear their players' needs towards European competition."

    This is a terrible arguement as all the teams in the magners who compete at a high level in HC are always in the top 4 in the Magners and if an english team has to worry about qualifying for the HC they should not be competing in it.

    I do however agree to a point about the qualification for the HC is easier on the Magners teams (ie apart from connacht they don't have to worry about it)

  • Comment number 2.

    Apologies in my last post i meant to say if a team needs to worry about relegation (and not qualification) they should not be in the HC

  • Comment number 3.

    CaoimhinCentre - it's not just the effect it has on the teams in the Heineken Cup, though - it's how it affects all the teams in the league.

    For instance, Leeds pushed Saints pretty hard earlier this month because they were fighting for their own survival. One more try and they'd have managed it too. In a relegation-free competition such as the Magners, there's not the same incentive to do well.

    In any case, a flipside of the relegation argument is that Magners teams should qualify by merit on their position in the league, not based on their position compared with their compatriot teams or in the case of the Scots and the Italians, simply existing.

  • Comment number 4.

    Matt

    You may well be right. But upsets can happen in towards the end of the season in the magners too. Look at connacht beating leinster last year with two games left. Leinster had the bones of a full team out and connacht had nothing to play for

  • Comment number 5.

    Hmmm getting a little tired this Celtic (no more Magners) league versus Premiership debate. For most of this season the English relegation battle has been restricted to 3 clubs - and that's more competitive than usual. Often it's down to 1 or 2 clubs. I watch both Celtic and Premiership games and don't see any difference in the toughness of the encounters. I'm not sure how much Celtic rugby BBC pundits watch. I suspect zero to none

  • Comment number 6.

    Bluesinit
    You suspect the Welsh Wales rugby correspondent for the BBC who penned this article watches no Celtic rugby?

    Good, if long article Brynn.

    Haven't heard anybody give Saints much of a chance. That Leinster lineup looks pretty darn strong. I don't see either side getting much change out of the scrums or set piece and it will probably be a bit of class from one of the backs (most likely BOD) that breaks the game.

  • Comment number 7.

    A completely one sided article-bigging up Northampton the whole way. Yes its a final and anything would happen but player for player how many NH players would get into the Leinster team? 3? As as for Foden-well I would take Nacawa over him any day of the week. His try against Leicester and ditch try saving tackle against Toulouse showed that he is a complete full back. NH possibly have an advantage in the front row. But even then would you pick Hartley over Strauss? Nope me neither. Leinster's intensity and pace will simply be too much for NH. Leinster by 10

  • Comment number 8.

    Hookers_armpit not sure what effect a correspondent's nationality or ethnic extraction has in this context. Not heard, seen or read any BBC rugby correspondent's analysis of Leinster's season in the Celtic league, and how they balanced that against the demands of the HEC. It's always seems to be easier to say, oh the Celtic league doesn't have relegation so therefore it's easier for clubs/provinces/regions to balance its demands against the HEC. There is no proof for this assertion it's just lazy.

  • Comment number 9.

    If there is one big disadvantage for English teams I think it's the salary cap. I'm not sure but I'd guess that Leinsters wage bill is higher than any English team. They have a very strong squad and it's due to be strengthened again for next season. They can rest star players and still win in the Magners. Their home win against Ulster in the regular season was a good example. They played plenty of squad players but were still out of sight at half time. This was due to the great quality of the squad players, not any lack of intensity from a strong Ulster team who also needed the win.

    Leinster have a great academy and French teams were interested in several of our young players. Leinster were able to sign them up. If you look at Northampton's results during the Six Nations they clearly don't have as strong a squad and the salary cap will limit their ability to ever get Leinster's squad depth. I know there are good reasons for a salary cap but it is limiting the English teams at the top end of European rugby. In fact the strength of the bench may swing this game in Leinster's favour. Northampton may have the two best props. But Leinster have four very good props to use during the game, Northampton only have the two. I'm sure the likes of Jennings, Boss and McFadden will all come on to make an impact also.

  • Comment number 10.

    Despite being a Saint, I have a feeling that Leinster might sneak this by 3-10 points, but only towards the end, thats assuming the refereeing isn't as bad as last week. We have a chance to win no doubt about it, unbeaten so far in the HC is already an achievement to add to how well we've done since relegation. We may not win tonight, but can anybody truthfully say that we're not a team to be wary about over the next few years providing we can keep the core of our team together?

 

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