When Northampton's captain, Dylan Hartley, trots out the often-heard line that "you must win your home games in the Heineken Cup", he has hard evidence to back it up. Two seasons ago, Northampton won all six pool matches as they swept through to a final defeat by Leinster. Last year they lost their first two matches – one away, one at home – and elimination before the knockout stage almost inevitably followed.
"It was just a nightmare," Hartley recalls. "In the first game, away to Munster, we were heartbroken by a drop goal [by Ronan O'Gara] after however many phases. Then the following week we turn up at home, we think, 'We're the dog's bollocks, we don't lose at home', and Scarlets come and turn us over. So there's a lesson. We can't just turn up here and expect to win. Mentally we've got to turn up and make sure we're right."
Other truisms of the Heineken Cup are that a home quarter-final is handy, and therefore to earn away points in the pool is essential, too. So, to sum up, Northampton will only feel comfortable about their chances of improving English clubs' increasingly sketchy record in Europe if they beat Glasgow in this season's Heineken Cup opener today and then win away to Castres on Friday night.
For Hartley to portray this as a mental battle is painfully timely. The Premiership leaders were embarrassingly off the pace when beaten at London Irish last weekend, having won their first five league matches.
The hooker himself has had a two-week break after fracturing his eye socket, but the questions about his temperament linger. The faith shown in him by his club was replicated by England when he skippered them in their most recent match – the Third Test in South Africa, when Chris Robshaw was injured. A sin-bin offence in the second half of that 14-14 draw in Port Elizabeth marred a praiseworthy performance against arguably the world's top Test front row.
"My heart sank and ultimately I was disappointed, because we drew the game when we could have won it," Hartley says. "The ref, Steve Walsh, kept saying to me, 'Dylan, no more penalties in this area'. He meant team penalties in the red zone. The ball was being killed or slowed – and there was a ball on the floor and I fell on it and I thought, 'He can't do me' and then you see him reaching for his pocket and you feel like grabbing his hand and saying, 'No, no, no'."
The incident, he says, "pleased a lot of people. With Dylan Hartley I know that people want to see him get binned, they want to see him fail. There were a lot of people at home going, 'Yes' ". Hartley had tweets from strangers taunting him – "I've put five pounds on you getting a red card today". But he insists he has "a skin like a rhino", toughened by keeping his career of 42 England caps on track through a six-month ban for gouging in 2007 and a nine-week suspension this year for biting the fingers of Ireland's Steve Ferris in a Six Nations match at Twickenham.
He was a water-carrier "screaming on the sidelines" during the London Irish setback eight days ago that has quickly been transformed into a motivational spur. "There are a few players who I would hope you see a big reaction from this week," Hartley says. "Everything we did was not us. We reviewed it, we said, 'This is not what we're about and we are never going to be like this again'.
"It has come at a good stage in the season because we have to have two good games in the Heineken Cup, then Saracens and Leicester in the Premiership. Four huge games."
Hartley has been busy mugging up on Dougie Hall, his opposite number for Glasgow, who are on a run of four wins including away to Ospreys (28-10) and Cardiff Blues (18-3 last weekend).
The captain and second row, Al Kellock, and the unpredictable full-back Stuart Hogg will be hoping to mug the Sassenachs (even if Hartley is England's adopted New Zealander) and perhaps strike a blow for the Pro 12 in the row over the structure of the Heineken Cup.
The English argue the qualifying system is weighted against them, but their European seeding is falling, with only Northampton and Leicester now in the top 10 of the rankings. Scottish and Italian teams may miss out under the Premiership's proposal for 24 teams in the Heineken to be reduced to 20 while keeping England's quota at a minimum six.
"I believe the best teams should be in the competition, even if it means some countries' teams not qualifying," says Saints' coach, Jim Mallinder, not that it is on his players' minds every waking moment.
Mallinder says admiringly of Hartley: "He is our leader – if anyone leaves tape in the shower Dylan is the one who says, 'Pick it up, you dirty bastard'," and advocates him for the England captaincy in next month's Tests. "I do honestly think Stuart Lancaster has got a difficult decision to make now," Mallinder says. The Northampton flanker Tom Wood wants the job too. But the most pressing cross-border business is this afternoon at Franklin's Gardens.Reuse content