Pountney plays the Saints' underdog card

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The Independent Online

Budge Pountney was not exactly upbeat about the prospects of his Northampton side advancing to the semi-finals of the Heineken Cup by beating Toulouse, the most formidable club team in Europe, on their own quintessentially French mudheap on Friday night. "Victory is almost unattainable," admitted the Midlanders' coach yesterday, in tones calculated to make the travelling supporters wonder whether they might have been better off spending their hard-earned money on the forthcoming Premiership trips to Bath and Worcester - matches that, in the great scheme of things, are rather more meaningful.

Budge Pountney was not exactly upbeat about the prospects of his Northampton side advancing to the semi-finals of the Heineken Cup by beating Toulouse, the most formidable club team in Europe, on their own quintessentially French mudheap on Friday night. "Victory is almost unattainable," admitted the Midlanders' coach yesterday, in tones calculated to make the travelling supporters wonder whether they might have been better off spending their hard-earned money on the forthcoming Premiership trips to Bath and Worcester - matches that, in the great scheme of things, are rather more meaningful.

There again, Pountney is no stranger to the gentle art of lulling opponents into a false sense of security. Less than a fortnight after taking over at Franklin's Gardens from the sacked Alan Solomons, the former flanker and his sidekick, Paul Grayson, fathomed a way of beating Toulouse in a Heineken pool match they were expected to lose by 30 points. Since then, Northampton have clawed their way off the bottom of the Premiership table and have a half-decent chance of surviving as a top-flight concern.

And if Toulouse - already without three international full-backs in Gareth Thomas, Nicolas Jeanjean and Xavier Garbajosa, the fearsome Romanian prop, Dragos Dima, and the suspended Tricolore centre Benoît Baby - are in a mood to take Pountney at his word, they might usefully cast their minds back to last season's Heineken Cup, when Northampton travelled to Agen and inflicted a first home defeat on that particular band of Frenchmen since things kicked off at Agincourt.

"No one gave us a prayer down there, yet we made it through," the coach acknowledged. "But this game in Toulouse is at the very top end of the scale of difficult matches. We're playing against a team of French internationals" - despite the absentees, the hosts can still summon a full hand of quality backs, including Frédéric Michalak, Jean-Baptiste Elissalde, Yannick Jauzion, Vincent Clerc and Clement Poitrenaud - "and I'm spending my week trying to figure out how fast they're going to come at us. They put 70 points on Brive in the French championship last weekend, which was an interesting result to say the least. They tend to pick up the pace at this stage of the season. They always seem to get their timing right."

While Toulouse are busy weighing up their unavailabilities ahead of the first of this weekend's quarter-finals - their former All Black No 8, Isitola Maka, is also struggling for fitness - Northampton have two internationals, the England wing Ben Cohen and the Springbok lock Selborne Boome, in contention after their respective jaw and back injuries. Of the players registered for this most demanding of tournaments, only Wyllie Human is out of the running. The South African wing is still recovering from surgery on a busted finger.

On the quiet, Pountney feels that his squad are in a positive frame of mind after wading through the endless negatives of the past seven months. He was certainly bullish in his response to the public criticism of the club recently aired by two more former Springboks - the prop Robbie Kempson, who is no longer a part of the squad, and the flanker Corne Krige, who is still very much present.

"Everyone is entitled to an opinion," Pountney said. "Of course, whether or not you take any notice of that opinion is a different matter. It's water off a duck's back as far as I'm concerned. We haven't lost a match since Corne had his say, and we haven't had one since Robbie made his comments. I'm pretty comfortable with the situation."

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