Hartley backs Saints to move up a gear and claim biggest prize
Captain knows Northampton must win scrum battle or Sexton, O'Driscoll and Co will ruin Midlanders' perfect record in Europe
An appearance in the world's biggest club final, against the top team in Ireland, in circumstances that seem a long way short of propitious...Northampton have been here before and understand the nature of the challenge.
Eleven years ago, the Midlanders marked England's re-engagement with the European rugby project after a season of boycotts and bitterness by pinching the Heineken Cup from under the noses of Munster, who had started the game as warmish favourites. If they can produce something similar against Leinster at the Millennium Stadium this evening, some people will be even more surprised.
Leinster cross the water as hot favourites rather than warm ones, and a glance at the Dubliners' team list tells us why. It is difficult to think of a No 8 anywhere on the planet playing better rugby than Jamie Heaslip, who performs like the brilliant Italian forward Sergio Parisse rather more often than Sergio Parisse. Is there a more dangerous ball-carrying flanker plying his trade north of the Equator than Sean O'Brien? Probably not. Is there an outside-half in the British Isles operating with more poise than Jonathan Sexton? Nope. Is that O'Driscoll bloke the nearest thing to a genuinely great British Isles player since Martin Johnson? It would be plain daft to think otherwise.
One way or another, then, Northampton have it all to do. Yet in European terms, they have been doing it all, all season. Their European record this term is unblemished – eight games, eight victories – and if they find a means of upsetting the apple-cart today, they will be only the third side in 16 years of Heineken Cup rugby to go through the card. It would be some achievement. Toulouse played only four matches in winning the inaugural 12-team tournament in 1996, while Brive were spared the slog of a home-and-away pool format when they claimed the title 12 months later.
"We'll have to move up a gear," acknowledged Dylan Hartley, the Northampton captain and England hooker, when asked about his side's prospects, "but on an emotional occasion such as this, you tend to do that automatically. It will be as close to Test rugby as it gets and for those of us looking to play at the World Cup later this year, it's the place to hold up our hands. But this is about the club, and the club alone. This time last week, we were fighting on two fronts. Having lost the Premiership semi-final at Leicester, at least we can say now that this is it – the last game of the season, with everything riding on it. We know where we stand."
Like any player with a front-rower's view of the world, Hartley was unwilling to accept that he and his fellow forwards had finished a distant second in that painful loss at Welford Road. "It took me a couple of days to get over it physically, it still hurts mentally, but defeat wasn't down to the pack," he insisted. "We weren't dominated." Any Leinstermen watching the broadcast from Tiger territory would have begged to differ, and if the former Harlequins prop Mike Ross – the man cruelly branded "a pastry chef" by his ex-colleague Nick Easter – performs as resourcefully here as he did for Ireland during their comprehensive Six Nations victory over England a couple of months ago, Hartley and his brethren may find themselves struggling for the second time in seven days.
But Northampton, who will have to go through Leinster for the very good reason that they are not equipped to go round them, do not often struggle at close quarters from one weekend to the next. The Irishmen are far better able to stand their ground amid the mud and bullets than they were even two years ago, when they prevailed over Leicester in Edinburgh to win the title for the first time, but if the English contenders are on their game in and around the set-pieces, they are at least capable of forcing O'Driscoll, Sexton and company to play off the back foot.
Contrasting styles, light and shade – it has the makings of a compelling contest. Perhaps the best since Wasps' smash-and-grab victory over Toulouse at Twickenham seven years ago.
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