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.

BUY RUGBY WORLD CUP TICKETS

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

Heavy weather

What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

World Bodypainting Festival 2015

Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

Don't call us nerds

Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high
How to find gold: The Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge

How to find gold

Steve Boggan finds himself in the Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge
Singing accents: From Herman's Hermits and David Bowie to Alesha Dixon

Not born in the USA

Lay off Alesha Dixon: songs sound better in US accents, even our national anthem
10 best balsamic vinegars

10 best balsamic vinegars

Drizzle it over salad, enjoy it with ciabatta, marinate vegetables, or use it to add depth to a sauce - this versatile staple is a cook's best friend
Wimbledon 2015: Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

Serena dispatched her elder sister 6-4, 6-3 in eight minutes more than an hour
Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

Greece referendum

Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

7/7 bombings anniversary

Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

Versace haute couture review

Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

No hope and no jobs in Gaza

So the young risk their lives and run for it
Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

Fashion apps

Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy