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Northampton Saints vs Leinster Rugby
Heineken Cup, Pool 1, Match 3,
Franklin's Gardens, Northampton,
Saturday 7th December 2013, 18:00

Television: Live - Sky Sports 2, Highlights TG4 21:05

Well it was nice while it lasted.

England's on-off relationship with the Heineken Cup finally seems to have reached the bitter end with their clubs voting on Thursday to boycott next season's event. They now seem to be trying to set up some sort of replacement tournament with their love-struck lapdogs the Welsh regions, which is equally hilarious and sad at the same time. The Heineken Cup without them will undoubtedly be poorer, even though the knock-out stages will largely be the same as recent years given how most of the English clubs have struggled to qualify from their pools (an average of just two a season for the past five years).

So, this may well be Leinster's last competitive trip to England for a while or indeed ever so let's have a little wander down memory lane shall we! Despite the breakdown in relationships between rival administrators, Leinster have had some wonderful times in England. At the start back in 1996 it was fairly tough though, the Blue Army of fans hadn't really assembled at this point so it was mostly a small group of family and friends who travelled with the team. Their first two trips to England ended in defeat to Leicester in Welford Road and then they missed a year when the English stormed off in a huff for the first time. They returned to Leicester in 2000 and won their first competitive game on English soil, but as the Tigers had nothing to play for, it was something of a facile win.

But the next season, they played tomorrow's opponents Northampton in Franklin's Gardens and beat them 14-8 in a really close, tense match. The Saints were champions at the time so it was a pretty big deal for Leinster to beat them. Remarkably it would be the last time the two teams were paired in a pool until this year. In the next few seasons there were successful trips to Newcastle, Bristol and Sale, but it was really only in Bath in 2005 that the Blue Army of travelling fans really began to emerge.

Internet travel booking had made following the team far more affordable and there was over a thousand Leinster fans in the Recreation Ground to see their team pull off a late smash and grab win. A crushing quarter-final defeat followed against Leicester later that season but the following January they were back in Bath on an unseasonably sunny day. The two thousand Leinster fans that were there saw Leinster give an awesome display of attacking rugby led by Felipe Contepomi, Shane Horgan and Brian O'Driscoll which earned them a bonus-point win that qualified them for the quarter-finals.

After the high of that win, Leinster struggled for a while on their English trips. The next season a sloppy defeat in Gloucester meant they had to travel to Adams Park where they were crushed by a Wasps side inspired by Eoin Reddan. The following season, they travelled to Leicester, yet again, this time to play a dead rubber as both teams were out. In a depressing game, they lost anyway as they did the following season in Twickenham, against Wasps. Dire though that game was, they did pick up a useful bonus point, which was crucial in getting them to the quarter-finals where they would face Harlequins.

That day in the Stoop is another momentous day in Leinster history. Furiously roared on by the blue army of fans, who Quins foolishly put all together in one terrace to create a endless barrage of noise; Leinster ground out a 6-5 win through sheer guts and pride. The game will always be remembered for the infamous "Bloodgate" incident, but Leinster fans will prefer to remember the incredible atmosphere on the day and the graciousness of the Quins fans afterwards. On the back of that win, Leinster went on to beat Leicester in Edinburgh to win the trophy for the first time.

The following season Leinster were back in Twickenham drawing with London Irish and the year after Leinster made their Wembley debut, seeing out a tense finale against Saracens. It was an important win on their way to another trophy and the following season they followed up another win in Bath by beating Ulster in the "All-Ireland" final in Twickenham of all places. Perhaps the sight of two Irish teams at the "home of rugby" was the thing that pushed the English clubs over the edge to decide they had to wreck the tournament they could no longer win.

Last season there was a trip to Exeter, a small traditional club who provided a hugely warm welcome and who were proud to host the European champions. It provided a reminder that the majority of English clubs are not soulless franchises with ruthless, megalomaniac owners like Saracens and Nigel Wray. Northampton too has a good reputation as a proper rugby town so hopefully there will be a warm welcome for the visiting fans, despite all the off-field politics.

The welcome from the Northampton team itself probably won't be quite as friendly. There's no doubt they're still smarting from the defeat in the final in Cardiff in 2011. To lose any final is painful but to lose one when you were 16 points up at half-time will rankle with a team forever. It's scant consolation to them surely, but Leinster played like men possessed in that second forty minutes, possibly the greatest second half they ever played. It's probably the greatest final ever, certainly it's the most memorable, but the Saints team will have had a gutful of being reminded about it in the build-up to this game.

The Saints are in good form and have only lost two games in all competitions this season. Like Leinster, they are second in their league with their only domestic defeat a shock home loss to Gloucester. They recruited well in the summer with the likes of Kahn Fotuali'i, George North and Alex Corbisiero coming in and are playing some good rugby under new backs coach Alex King. They are missing one or two players this weekend though. Fotuali'i and Corbisiero are both on the injured list alongside Ben Foden and their influential Samoan centre George Pisi is suspended, as a result of a dangerous tackle made against Ireland in the Aviva Stadium.

They can still name a very strong team however, especially in the pack where they will be looking to dominate. American international Samu Manoa is quite simply a beast of a man in the second row and is one of the form players in the Premiership. He makes up a hugely physical but also very mobile second row with England international Courtney Lawes, who finally seems to have shaken off his disciplinary problems to become the player he always promised to be. There's more physically in the back row in the shape of Phil Dowson and Sam Dickinson but Tom Wood is the pick of this unit. An understated, unfussy player, he is nevertheless classy in everything he does and gets through a mountain of work. In the front row Dylan Hartley is a player opposition fans love to hate (not entirely without reason), but when focused he can be an excellent player. Australian international Salesi Ma'afu packs will pack down at tighthead with Alex Waller filling in for Corbisiero on the loosehead side.

In the backs scrum-half Lee Dickson has been named to start. When Kahn Fotuali'i was signed it was assumed by most that Dickson would drop to the bench, but to his credit he has responded superbly to the competition, so much so that he was the starting England scrum-half for all three of their autumn internationals. Fotuali'i is injured anyway this week, but with Dickson in such good form, this is less of a blow than it might have been. Stephen Myler is named at ten and there is a strong midfield pair of the physical Luther Burrell and the experienced Dominic Waldouck. George Pisi's brother Ken is named on the right wing with Lions superstar George North named on the left. James Wilson has returned from injury to take the place of Glenn Dickson at full back. Considering their absentees, it's a pretty powerful starting line-up although they may lack a little of impact off the bench although Christian Day and Calum Clark may contest that point.

The Leinster starting fifteen is comprised entirely of Irish internationals for perhaps the first time ever in the Heineken Cup. It shows nine changes to the team that started last week and there are several interesting choices. The Kearney boys return to the back three, both of them in good form after fine autumn international campaigns. They join Luke Fitzgerald who stays on the left wing. Brian O'Driscoll has recovered from the concussion sustained in the New Zealand match to join up with his old partner Gordon D'Arcy in midfield. In perhaps the most notable selection Ian Madigan and Eoin Reddan both start their first Heineken Cup games of the season with Isaac Boss and Jimmy Gopperth held back in reserve.

In the pack the familiar front row of Cian Healy, Sean Cronin and Mike Ross return and Devin Toner comes back to partner Mike McCarthy in the second row. Rhys Ruddock continues at six after his recent good form and Sean O'Brien and Jamie Heaslip complete the backrow with Heaslip as captain as Leo Cullen is named on the bench. Culle is in good company on the bench with plenty of experience in Shane Jennings, Isaac Boss, Jimmy Gopperth and Zane Kirchner and explosive young talent in Jack McGrath and Martin Moore. It is perhaps a more attacking line-up that would have been predicted but at the same time coach Matt O'Connor knows that Leinster need to start scoring more tries.

Leinster currently lead in the pool by three points and if they can maintain that lead by the end of the double-header, they will be happy enough. However these double-headers are tricky things and can't be taken for granted. The common wisdom is that a losing bonus point in the first away fixture is a great result and it is, but only if you win at home the following week. Last season Leinster got burned when they got a losing bonus point away to Clermont and were perhaps over-confident that they'd win at home the following week. Instead Clermont turned up under no pressure and played Leinster off the park. Ultimately it led to Leinster not qualifying from the pool and missing the chance of contesting a Heineken Cup final in Dublin. Leo Cullen has spoken of the bitterness of that memory and how they must learn from it and go for the win while it's there.

While their backs have plenty of ability there's no doubt that the Saints will try to win this game through their big pack. It's been well said in the English media that Leinster won't be able to live with their size and physicality. The likes of Cian Healy, Jamie Heaslip and especially Sean O'Brien, who's in the form of his career, will bristle at these claims and seek to provide a suitable response. A bonus point defeat wouldn't be the end of the world, but Leinster could just sneak a win here which would put them in firm control of the pool.

Team Lineups

Northampton Saints

Leinster Rugby
Teams James Wilson 15 Rob Kearney
Ken Pisi 14 Dave Kearney
Dom Waldouck 13 Brian O'Driscoll
Luther Burrell 12 Gordon D'Arcy
George North 11 Luke Fitzgerald
Stephen Myler 10 Ian Madigan
Lee Dickson 9 Eoin Reddan

Alex Waller 1 Cian Healy
Dylan Hartley (C) 2 Sean Cronin
Salesi Ma'afu 3 Mike Ross
Samu Manoa 4 Devin Toner
Courtney Lawes 5 Mike McCarthy
Tom Wood 6 Rhys Ruddock
Phil Dowson 7 Sean O'Brien
Sam Dickinson 8 Jamie Heaslip (C)

Replacements Mike Haywood 16 Aaron Dundon
Ethan Waller 17 Jack McGrath
Tom Mercey 18 Martin Moore
Christian Day 19 Leo Cullen
Calum Clark 20
Shane Jennings
Ryan Glynn 21 Isaac Boss
Glenn Dickson 22 Jimmy Gopperth
Jamie Elliott 23 Zane Kirchner

Not Considered
due to Injury
Ben Foden,
Kahn Fotuali'i,
Alex Corbisiero

Edward Byrne,
Andrew Goodman,
Richardt Strauss,
Fergus McFadden
Officials Referee: Nigel Owens (WRU),
Assistant Referees: Sean Brickell, Jon Mason (both WRU),
TMO: Tim Hayes (WRU)

by Jim O'Connor, © 2013-12-06