"Priorisation" is self-evidently not a word of the four-letter variety, but that has not prevented John Steele dismissing it from his vocabulary as though it were the worst profanity in the English language. "There are no priorities," the Northampton coach has repeatedly insisted over the last few difficult weeks. "We started the season in three competitions and we're still in three competitions. Nothing has changed." Except that things have changed. When your team has a shot at European glory, everything else takes second place.
Certainly, that is how the rugby romantics of Llanelli see it. "This is the biggest game in the club's history," said Gareth Jenkins, the Scarlets' coach, of his side's Heineken Cup semi-final with the Midlanders at Reading's Madejski Stadium tomorrow. Given that Jenkins was a young, inexperienced member of the Llanelli pack that turned over the All Blacks on that misty, never-to-be-forgotten winter's afternoon in 1972 the importance he places on this encounter speaks volumes.
On the face of it, the two clubs are diametrically opposed in their approach. Some 8,000 Scarlet townsfolk will come flooding across the Severn Bridge and Jenkins, who can be almost poetic in capturing the uniqueness of a grand occasion like this, says his aim is to "bring a spirit of national pride, of Welshness" to the proceedings.
"The intriguing thing about this is the uncommonness of it all," he enthused. "Llanelli and Northampton know very little about each other, despite a long history of fixtures between us. They were always at Stradey at Easter while we were always up there in the second week in December. Yet since the Welsh and English have been doing their own thing we've lost touch with each other. The beauty of competing in Europe is that you play, you revisit your performance, you put things right within a week and then get back on the road and test yourself against unfamiliar opposition. This is the closest you can go to mirroring international rugby."
Northampton appear less exercised by the opportunity ahead. Their travelling support, so vociferous all season, will be down a notch - the Saints will take less than 5,000, having sold little more than 50 per cent of their allocation - and Steele remains downbeat. "The difference between Llanelli and ourselves," he said, "is that they have a tradition of winning things. They've picked up a lot of trophies, while we've never won a major competition. I expect them to present a very strong challenge, but then, every match is a challenge at the moment."
Steele is playing mind games; Northampton want this one so badly, it hurts. In fact, it hurts to such a degree that their large contingent of walking wounded have risen above some fairly serious physical discomfort. Nick Beal and Allan Bateman, key figures in the Saints back division, successfully negotiated fitness tests yesterday and were named in the starting line-up, as were three international forwards: the outstanding prop Garry Pagel, the open-side flanker Budge Pountney and the No 8 and captain, Pat Lam. At outside-half Ali Hepher goes in ahead of Paul Grayson and Tim Rodber eases out Don Mackinnon as blind-side flanker.
This afternoon's opening semi-final between Toulouse and Munster at Stade Lescure in Bordeaux is a more clear-cut affair. The Celtic clansmen of Cork and Limerick have been in vintage form all season, not least in the Heineken arena, and now that the mysteries of winning in France have largely been solved by Ireland's Six Nations win over the Tricolores, they will not be lacking in belief. But Toulouse are the crÃ¿me de la crÃ¿me when it comes to European competition.
If the outsiders emerge from the opening quarter points up, if Ronan O'Gara kicks goals from everywhere, if Keith Wood gets the scent of a prime kill in his nostrils, the Irishmen may just prevail.
But in reality, the "if" factor is too great to permit an upset.Reuse content