Heineken Cup: Northampton Saints need to prove they’ve got true grit
They have got this far in Europe on the back of an unbeaten record and over the last two weeks of Aviva Premiership action they have had impressive wins, racking up 92 points and 13 tries, as Wasps and Sale Sharks have been ruthlessly put to the sword.
Northampton Saints have certainly been hitting their straps of late and the return of England internationals Chris Ashton, Dylan Hartley, the hugely impressive Tom Wood and Ben Foden, despite his recent arrest, have all contributed to the feelgood factor currently permeating Franklin’s Gardens.
Those same players will also be eager to get at Ulster following England’s trouncing by Ireland at Lansdowne Road last month, when a Grand Slam chance crashed and burned, and will have a huge desire to get one over on Rory Best, Andrew Trimble, Tom Court and Paddy Wallace.
The recent return from injury of scrum-half Lee Dickson has also brought the Saints a much-needed on-field boost and with other key players in the side, including Courtney Lawes, former Ulster player Roger Wilson, one time Leinster squad member James Downey and the powerful Tongan prop Soane Tonga’uiha (pictured), Northampton have a lethal look about them.
So then, with all of that |ammunition surely the Saints will simply march on in Europe easily overcoming the impediment of having to play Sunday’s game at the MK Dons’ stadium . . . won’t they?
Well, there are lingering suspicions that Jim Mallinder’s side are not quite the invulnerable team that has recently been putting on a show in the Premiership.
Indeed, prior to the return of their England players, the Saints had hit a pretty severe bump in the road by losing six consecutive Premiership games, and though they have steadied the ship and find themselves now in fourth, and just inside the play-off zone, they are being hotly pursued by London Irish.
In Europe, the Saints did win all six games, and topped their group by 11 clear points from Cardiff Blues, but three of the results were by only four-point margins with only one big total being chalked up when they hammered Edinburgh 37-0 at Franklin’s |Gardens.
There is also the fact that nearly all the pressure has been heaped in Northampton’s corner as they enter their second successive quarter-final after failing to progress past Munster last season.
Indeed, for a club of Northampton’s stature, with its large and loyal following, their quest in capturing significant silverware has hardly been resoundingly successful.
They lifted the Heineken Cup back in 2000 when Pat Lam’s inspiration broke Munster hearts, but since then they have lost three quarter-finals and a semi-final.
That last four defeat to Wasps came in the season they were relegated from the Premiership, though they did, unsurprisingly, bounce back and went on to win the European Challenge Cup, as well as last season’s rather uncared for LV Cup.
Yet for all their occasional success they have never really had the hunger or dominance consistently shown by Leicester Tigers either in Europe or domestically.
They now need to hit back at the doubters by somehow winning the battle on two fronts; dealing with Ulster and also the |almost overwhelming burden of expectation.