Dylan Hartley: Northampton have spent the season proving all our critics wrong
It is difficult to imagine Northampton suffering from a persecution complex – who in their right mind would pick on such hardened street fighters as Dylan Hartley, Courtney Lawes, Tom Wood and the fearsome Samu Manoa? – but they are certainly sick to the back teeth of being written off.
"It's been the story of our season," said Hartley, their captain, after completing a final training session ahead of this weekend's Aviva Premiership decider at Twickenham. "We've spent the whole campaign trying to prove people wrong. And guess what? We've reached the grand final."
In order to take the next step and actually win the thing, Hartley's side must see off their nearest and not-so-dearest from Leicester – local rivals who are positively smothered in showpiece experience, having reached this stage for the ninth year in succession.
As recently as a fortnight ago, few would have given the Saints a prayer. Now, in the wake of their comprehensive 27-13 dismantling of Saracens in the semi-final, aficionados of East Midlands rugby expect a proper contest.
"We'll need to summon the same kind of emotion, the same intensity, as we brought to the game at Saracens," said Hartley, "and I can guarantee it will be there.
"We have so much to play for: we've had an up-and-down season, we've been given the underdog tag and we have players who will leave the club after this game. We've been through thick and thin together, so the prospect of playing in front of a full house at Twickenham and winning a trophy is huge. I've had some good times here, but losing four Premiership semi-finals and a Heineken Cup final was heartbreaking. I don't want this to be another heartbreak game."
Leicester will almost certainly begin the match with six freshly-anointed British and Irish Lions on the field. Hartley is the only Northampton man to have made the cut for the forthcoming tour of Australia. As the hooker's direct front-row opponent will be Tom Youngs, the man currently keeping him out of the England starting line-up and one of the favourites to make the Lions' starting XV, there could be all manner of fun and games at scrum time.
"I'm going to Twickenham to win a trophy for the club," Hartley said. "But yes, there's a sub-plot involving me and Tom. If I go well against him, I'll put my hand up in front of the Lions coaches. It's a chance to push myself forward. I think a few people believe I'm in that squad as the third hooker, but everyone has their time in the sun and I'm here for the long game."
One player who knows what it is to score the match-winning try in a Premiership final, the former Leicester and England centre Dan Hipkiss, has announced his retirement from the sport at 30 after failing to recover from a serious shoulder injury.
Hipkiss, whose last-ditch try against Saracens took the Tigers to the 2010 title, joined Bath the following year and had recently signed a contract extension at the Recreation Ground.
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