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We're in a better place - Hartley

Dylan Hartley believes Northampton are better equipped than ever to win European club rugby's biggest prize - but now must prove it.

Saints, beaten 33-22 by Leinster in the 2011 Heineken Cup final, play Clermont Auvergne in Saturday's European Champions Cup quarter-final.

"We are in a better place now," said the England hooker and Saints captain.

"We had a good run (in 2011). Everything seemed to go our way, bar 40 minutes.

"That probably exhausted us. We had one team that played every game. We've got a better balanced squad now, men fighting for positions.

"We've won the Premiership, which is nice, we'd like to win it again this year, but as a squad if we want to progress we've got to win bigger things and the European Cup's that.

"Our squad responds well to a challenge and we're fully aware of what we want to be.

"There's not the big motivational chat. Everyone's clued in. We know what we've got to do.

"It feels like we've put the effort in to make it this far in the tournament, we should really progress to a final and give ourselves a good chance.

"It's a progression from going from a good club to a great club.

"Winning the Premiership is a difficult task. This is a bigger challenge, you're playing against the best of the best in Europe.

"Playing away in a quarter-final is the biggest challenge of the season so far."

Should Northampton prevail they will play Racing Metro or Saracens at the Ricoh Arena in Coventry later this month.

Winning a European quarter-final is no mean feat, especially travelling to Clermont, who are unbeaten in 22 European fixtures at their Stade Marcel-Michelin home.

"They're not invincible," added Hartley, who takes confidence from results in recent seasons.

"We went to Ulster a couple of seasons ago, Leicester, Saracens, we're the only team to win there (this season). We can do it."

Wing George North is not available for the match after suffering his fourth head injury in the last five months when he was knocked out during the 52-30 win over Wasps. He will not play during April on the advice of a neurologist.

For Hartley the disappointment of Cardiff four years ago subsided with victory in the Aviva Premiership final last May and while he described the contest as "France versus England" he downplayed the frantic RBS 6 Nations finale.

With Hartley among the Saints players to the fore, England beat France 55-35 at Twickenham last month, only to miss out on the Six Nations title by a points difference of six to Ireland.

"I don't think that's got any say in the game," Hartley said.

"This is knockout stuff. That last weekend in the Six Nations everyone had to score points, so the mindset changed.

"This week 3-0 will do the trick. I'd love to see a similar scoreline, but I don't think you're going to see it."

This time, the Top 14 clubs augmented by their foreign legion are fancied against the best of England, with Saracens going to Racing Metro and Wasps to defending champions Toulon, while Leinster host Bath in the final last-eight tie.

"I can see why the bookies have done it, but I think there could be a few upsets," Hartley added.

The hooker knows the contest could be won up front early on.

"It's always so confrontational, so hard up front and I think Clermont probably epitomises that style of play," he said.

"They grind teams out with their big, physical, heavy pack.

"You've got to be respectful, but not intimidated or afraid. We've spoken about that as a forward pack especially.

"If we turn up and manage our part of the game, that can flow into the rest of the game. If we get dominated, we're going to make it hard for the rest of the team."


From Belfast Telegraph