As recently as a month ago, Northampton were all dressed up with nowhere to go. Spanked by Ulster on home soil, their chances of playing knockout rugby in the Heineken Cup seemed more remote than the Planet Zog. Their domestic league form was nothing to write home about, they had lost the services of their long-serving coach Paul Grayson in circumstances that were never satisfactorily explained, most of their best players were either injured or out of form and it looked for all the world as though the influential figures they had lost to Irish provinces last May – the No 8 Roger Wilson and the centre James Downey – were being terribly missed.
Then, they somehow found a way of beating the Ulstermen in the return match at Ravenhill – no mean feat in anyone's language – and since reviving their European campaign, there has been more of the old swagger about them. Tomorrow evening, they will feel even better about themselves if they turn in a strong performance against the French club Castres and give themselves at least a puncher's chance of making the Heineken Cup quarter-finals.
"We have a massive point to prove in Europe and the players know what is expected of them," Jim Mallinder, the Midlanders' rugby director, said today. "We need to win to keep our destiny in our own hands, especially as Castres are ahead of us in the pool. It won't be easy: they are one of top sides in France and have been in superb form, playing a style of rugby that makes the most of their big forwards and their speed out wide. But we're playing well, we're in a positive frame of mind and there is plenty for us to build on."
If Mallinder was only partially right – his players are not doing everything to his liking, far from it – there is no doubting that the Saints' defensive game is highly effective at this key point in the season. In last week's Premiership contest at Sandy Park, they backed themselves physically against the heavy-duty Exeter ball-carriers and suckered the West Countrymen into exhausting themselves in contact. Castres, fourth in their domestic Top 14 league, will ask very different questions, but the English club are fielding a trio of Trojan-like workers in their back row in an effort to cramp the Gallic style. Calum Clark, Tom Wood and Phil Dowson? These people know what it is to put in a shift.
Up at Sale, where things are rather less rosy than they are down Northampton way, Heineken Cup possibilities have long since disappeared into thin air. Far more interested in preserving their Premiership status than making futile gestures in a competition that passed them by before Christmas, the northerners have named a weak side for tonight's meeting with Montpellier in Salford, although Mark Cueto and Danny Cipriani will start the game at centre and outside-half respectively, alongside the Scotland international lock Richie Gray. The most interesting selection is that of Josh Beaumont, 20-year-old son of the former England captain and current Rugby Football Union chairman Bill, at No 8.
In the Amlin Challenge Cup, the bright-spark backs Jonny May and Henry Trinder return to the Gloucester side for tonight's game with Bordeaux-Bègles in Grand Cru land. Both have been injured – May has not played since September, while Trinder has been incapacitated since October – and they will be keen to make up for lost time. Especially Trinder, who was challenging for a place in the senior England squad a year ago but now finds himself relegated from the second-string Saxons set-up.