Northampton's 'Mr Energy' can generate the forward power to deliver final shock

Lee Dickson, Saints' unsung heartbeat, tells Chris Hewett how a unified pack without 'big dogs' can put the bite on Leinster today
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Lee Dickson's face is a picture as he contemplates his response: one third smile, one third grimace, one third relief of the "thank God it wasn't me" variety.

"You have to admit," says the Northampton scrum-half after due consideration, "that he did well to stay on his feet. If I'd been on the wrong end of it, there wouldn't have been three shots. I'd have gone down after the first one and stayed down, like the big girl I am." And the victim? How's his head? "I haven't noticed any ill effects," Dickson replies. "He's been his normal self, annoying the hell out of people as usual."

The subject of discussion is the England wing Chris Ashton, who found himself on the painful end of a three-punch combination, delivered with considerable prejudice by the Leicester centre Manu Tuilagi, during last weekend's Premiership semi-final at Welford Road. That evening, a few hours after the blows had landed, Ashton reported via Twitter that he was recuperating in front of a Rocky movie. This was a minor triumph of human resilience in itself. Most people in his dazed state would have reached for the wrong handset and tried to transmit the message through the television remote.

Ashton hardly required Tuilagi's help to bag himself a few headlines: like the other members of Northampton's red-rose elite – Ben Foden and Dylan Hartley, Courtney Lawes and Tom Wood – he is a "news" player. Dickson has yet to find his way into this category, although there are folk at Franklin's Gardens who believe him to be every bit as important to the side's fortunes as the glitterati, if not more. Two seasons into his stay in the East Midlands, he has quickly become the heartbeat of the team. When he is not there, things stop working as they should. Only Hartley, the captain, affects performance levels so directly.

In this evening's Heineken Cup final with Leinster at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff – "the biggest game of my life, by a long way" – the 26-year-old half-back will stage the latest of his regular attempts to play his way into the England reckoning. He is not obviously short of confidence: asked whether he bases his style on a particular No 9 of the recent or distant past, he shakes his head. "I base myself on me," he says. "And if you're wondering whether I think I've played well enough to have a dart at making the Test squad, the answer is 'yes'.

"What can I do about it? Nothing, except the obvious. I need to keep playing well and keep hoping that they'll give me a call. There's a lot coming up: the Churchill Cup [the annual showcase for England's second-string Saxons side] and the World Cup training camp. I'd love to be a part of both, to have the chance of showing people what I can do."

Before the first game of the season – against Leicester, funnily enough – he was pumped to the eyeballs for three extremely good reasons: it was a first chance to get stuck into someone in a different-coloured jersey after interminable weeks of summer training; it was a derby set-to with the nearest and dearest, which always sends the mercury rising; and he was up against Ben Youngs, who had recently replaced Danny Care of Harlequins as England's first-choice scrum-half and was by some distance the most talked about player in the country. "He had the shirt I wanted, so the motivation was high," recalls the Northampton man. Dickson played so spectacularly well in coaxing and cajoling his side to a comprehensive victory that the Northampton director of rugby, Jim Mallinder, gave him the herogram treatment afterwards. "I put him right up there," Mallinder said. "Ben Youngs is a very fine player who offers a great deal, but Lee suits our game. He's Mr Energy for us, not just on the field but around the place generally. I think England should take a look at him, as I'm sure they will after that display."

If the England hierarchy did cast an eye, no one noticed. Least of all Dickson. "They seem to be going for a particular style of scrum-half at the moment," he acknowledges. "Ben, Danny, Joe Simpson – they're all running nines. I pride myself on my fitness and I have a big engine that helps me cover the field as well as anyone, but I see myself more as a passing half-back, an organiser who shouts at the forwards and gets them doing the things that win games of rugby. The backs? I let Stephen Myler [the Northampton outside-half] sort them out. Rugby matches are decided up front, and that's where I concentrate my efforts."

Dickson was born in Germany – in Verden an der Aller, a town in Lower Saxony, to be precise – and being of Anglo-Scottish parentage, he represented both countries at age-group level before going with the English option. Educated at Barnard Castle School in Co Durham, Alma Mater of Rob Andrew and the Underwood brothers among other red-rose internationals, he spent his early years in adult rugby at Newcastle before moving south at the start of last season.

"Ben Foden signed a couple of weeks before me and at that point, he was set on playing scrum-half," he says. Given Foden's reputation as a supercharged speedster with the quickest feet in Christendom, was this not a disincentive? "Quite the opposite. I joined Northampton because I wanted a challenge, so I saw Ben's move as an added attraction. Mind you, I'd be lying if I said I'm sorry he shifted to full-back."

A player's influence on a side does not lend itself to precise measurement, but the graph of Northampton's league campaign offers a clue as to Dickson's value. When he broke a bone in his leg at the end of October and was laid up for five weeks, the Midlanders just about made do without him. When he did something horrible to his shoulder joint after Christmas, however, they lost five league games in succession. Six Nations call-ups around that time also had an effect, but it was the loss of Dickson's pushing and prodding in and around the various theatres of forward conflict – the badgering and baiting and general bolshiness – that really hurt.

"I hate being injured," he admits. "I'm really rubbish at it. When I'm not training and playing, I'm the most envious person on earth. I look at people as they're running around and think: 'You lucky...' All told, I've missed 14 weeks of the season, and as I looked on this as 'my' season when it began, you can imagine the frustration. Still, I'm fully involved now, and as the matches we're involved in at the moment couldn't possibly have a bigger profile, at least I can say I'm fit at the right time."

While the first two glamour games, the Heineken Cup quarter-final with Ulster and the subsequent last-four tie with Perpignan, went swimmingly enough, last weekend's Premiership knockout defeat at Leicester had rather less in the way of fun attached to it. "It wasn't the quickest game I've ever played but it ranked alongside the most bruising," he says. "The thing with Welford Road is the size of the playing area. It's not the biggest. When you combine that with the way Leicester like to play, you know you're in for a lot of collisions and a long afternoon on the tackle front.

"Yes, we lost, but I don't think some of things said about the match were accurate. We didn't have much field position in the second half, but there wasn't a point when I thought to myself, 'Jesus, they're swarming all over us', or a moment when I felt helpless. Basically, it was a car crash of a game, with massive hits going in all over the place, and the reason we did so much more tackling than them after half-time – 60 to their eight, or something like that – was that they won a lot of tight decisions and kept hold of the ball off the back of them.

"People are saying we finished second up front, but it's a simplistic view. Actually, I thought our forwards were amazing. This Northampton pack is the best I've ever played behind, by a country mile. Look at our props, Soane Tonga'uiha and Brian Mujati. Name me two props who bring such energy to a game. The togetherness, the mutual support, the way everyone works for everyone else... there are no big dogs here." All similar-sized dogs together, then? "I suppose you could put it like that."