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Trip into the unknown for Saints


Jim Mallinder

Jim Mallinder

Jim Mallinder

Northampton will be prepared for the "different problems" posed by Heineken Cup opponents when they switch their attention from domestic to European business on Friday night.

Last season's Heineken Cup quarter-finalists face a Pool One opener against French challengers Castres at Franklin's Gardens. Fit-again England wing Chris Ashton has given Saints a boost by returning to the starting XV, and Northampton are determined to make an immediate statement of intent in a group that also includes Cardiff Blues and Edinburgh.

"Playing in Europe gives you the opportunity to come up against new sides, and this is what we will be doing when we play Castres," said Northampton rugby director Jim Mallinder.

"It has given the players something new to focus on as Castres will pose us different problems to what we have faced in the Premiership so far.

"They have beaten some big teams like Toulouse this season, and their coaches have put together a very strong outfit. They have some big ball carriers in the back-row and a fast back line that likes to move the ball.

"We have been working hard on every aspect of our game this week, and everyone in the squad has put in the effort to try and get selection in the team."

Ashton, skipper Dylan Hartley, prop Brian Mujati and flanker Tom Wood are all back on duty following last weekend's 27-21 win against Premiership newcomers Exeter.

While Northampton prepare for a degree of the unknown against Castres, four Magners League sides go head-to-head in Friday night's two other Heineken Cup encounters.

Ulster host newly-established Italian side Aironi in Pool Four, with Pool Six rivals Glasgow and Newport Gwent Dragons meeting at Firhill.

Premiership clubs Gloucester and Sale Sharks make their Amlin Challenge Cup entry on Friday night, with Gloucester visiting Agen and Sale hosting Spanish side Cetransa El Salvador.

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