Northampton Saints gamble with semi-final while Harlequins unleash big guns

rugby union correspondent

Northampton are already guaranteed a place in next month’s Premiership play-offs, unlike Friday night’s opponents Harlequins, yet it is the Midlanders who seem caught in two minds over their approach to matters European.

By leaving some of his big-name internationals – Luther Burrell, Courtney Lawes, Tom Wood – on the bench for this evening’s Amlin Challenge Cup semi-final meeting with the Londoners at Franklin’s Gardens, Saints’ rugby director Jim Mallinder may well have handed the initiative to visitors who are peaking at precisely the right time.

Quins are not quite at full strength themselves: Nick Evans, their guiding light at outside-half, was injured during the magnificent league victory over Leicester a week ago and gives way to Ben Botica, his fellow New Zealander, for this one.

But with the England loose-head prop Joe Marler back at the sharp end after injury and the rest of the current red-rose contingent – Mike Brown, Danny Care and Chris Robshaw – occupying their rightful places in the starting line-up, it is easy to argue that they are the ones taking things seriously.

Mallinder insisted that the game matters to Northampton, while arguing that a degree of player rotation was necessary owing to the importance of the league match at Bath next Friday. However, the Saints can afford to lose in the West Country and still reckon on securing a home tie at the Premiership’s last-four stage. They currently lay second in the table with two to play, protected by a seven-point buffer and blessed with an eminently winnable home game against Wasps in the last round of fixtures.

Quins are nowhere near as comfortable on the Premiership front: they will have to throw everything at Exeter next weekend and then beat Bath, quite possibly with plenty to spare, if they are to make the knockout phase. Even so, they see Friday night’s Challenge Cup business as a priority.

“We have a great history in the competition, having won it more than once, and it’s exciting stuff,” said George Robson, their ultra-reliable lock. “We know what it takes, what we have to do. Northampton have beaten us twice in the league this season but both games were nip and tuck. They pose a big challenge but there’s no feeling around the camp of ‘Oh no, it’s them again’.”

This is the Challenge Cup’s last hurrah – in its present form, at least. Next season’s across-the-board revamp of European rugby means this competition is an end in itself: there will be no direct entry into the elite tournament for the winners; no knock-on benefit to a fellow English club finishing just short of qualification, as there was previously.

Yet while it has never been the most popular of events, a title-sponsorship deal and a change in format has boosted its allure in recent campaigns.

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