Northampton Saints are enjoying one of the finest seasons in their history, with the LV Cup already in the trophy cabinet, a place in the Guinness Premiership top 2 looking highly likely, and the honour of being the last remaining English team in the Heineken Cup bestowed upon them.
This weekend, however, is the biggest match of their season – away versus Munster in the Heineken Cup Quarter-Finals – and victory is not out of the question.
For me, the biggest feather in the Saints’ cap on Saturday will be the knowledge that they could (and probably should) have won at Thomond Park earlier in the season. The mental barrier that faces teams when they visit Fortress Thomond should not have nearly the same effect that it has on other teams, and may have had on Northampton when they arrived for their Pool match earlier in the year.
Munster are likely to be infinitely better than they were that night, but there is also ample room to improve for Northampton, whose performance lacked the high-quality execution that we’ve seen so often at Franklin’s Gardens. The psychological barrier is usually worth at least a 5-point headstart for Munster, but suddenly, being drawn in the same pool as Munster is an advantage.
The visitors will also be buoyed by the news that Paul O’Connell may not be fit to play, and this would be an enormous blow to the hosts. If he had already been ruled out, the rest of the squad could get their heads around the fact that their captain would be missing, but the fact that he is ‘doubtful’ means that they could face a setback shortly before the game.
It could work the other way of course, and give the squad a lift if he makes it, but whether or not he plays, Munster have not been the force they once were. Leinster seem to have the upper hand over them in Ireland, as their Magners League showdown this weekend suggested where Leinster won by a point, and their aura of invincibility has been significantly eroded. With the team not at their best, and the Thomond fear factor reduced, Northampton have a brilliant chance.
It has already been a magnificent season for Jim Mallinder’s cohorts, but this is the game they really want to win. Their form could hardly be better going into the game, with impressive wins over the Tigers, Wasps and Gloucester, as well as Sale and Leeds, and confidence ought to be high.
In players such as Dylan Hartley, Courtney Lawes, Phil Dowson, Shane Geraghty, Jon Clarke, Chris Ashton and Ben Foden, they have a wealth of young, ambitious and talented players that should stand them in good stead for years to come. Whenever anyone asks me which players I would pick for England that Johnno hasn’t, my answer is invariably two or three Saints players, and the fact that they have been overlooked must have helped them forge a strong sense of teamship through consistency of selection.
Geraghty will have a point to prove after a disappointing performance against Munster last time out, and the others will be desperate to prove themselves on one of the biggest stages in rugby. For many, this is their chance to make their mark, and something tells me they won’t forgo another opportunity.
The Saints have the support of a nation, and we will certainly be getting behind them on Saturday. A win at Thomond Park is no longer unthinkable, and they might just pull it off.