Saints look for Leinster redemption
December 6, 2013
Leinster broke Northampton hearts in the 2011 final © Getty Images
In the last few weeks we have seen Heineken Cup posturing, u-turns and talk of boycotts - now we finally get to see some European rugby once again. English clubs will not take part in the competition next season as they hold out for an alternative Rugby Champions Cup but, for a small time at least, this will be pushed to one side as the four Premiership sides look to keep their on-field European ambitions alive.
The middle set of fixtures in the tournament are often the most decisive - with each team playing the same opponent home and away in the space of two weeks knowing full well the possible consequences of back-to-back defeats. Ospreys and Harlequins sit on the verge of Heineken Cup elimination already while Northampton will look to exorcise some of the demons from their 2011 final defeat to Leinster as they welcome the Pro12 champions to Franklin's Gardens on Saturday for what could the first of two absolutely thrilling encounters.
Saracens are on the back of a five-match winning run and the smart money would be on them extending it to seven over the next two weeks. The Premiership leaders take on Zebre, second-from-bottom in the Pro12, and should win both comfortably, though they will no doubt have one eye on the outcome of the encounters between Toulouse and Connacht, who are both currently above the Allianz Park side in Pool 3.
Top 14 league-leaders Clermont are also enjoying a healthy run of form, but their five-game unbeaten will be put to the test by a Jekyll and Hyde Scarlets outfit who sit top of the pool. Bolstered by Castres-bound wing Sitiveni Sivivatu, who was on absolutely electric form in the opening two rounds, Clermont know they be in a very strong position if they can navigate past the Scarlets at Stade Marcel-Michelin.
Irish regions Leinster and Munster are both undefeated in the RaboDirect PRO12 since their league encounter on October 5. Leinster travel to Northampton on Saturday looking to make it four wins from four against the Saints in the competition, while Munster welcome Perpignan to Thomond Park on Sunday looking to take control of Pool 6 with a win before a crucial trip to France for the return fixture.
Out of form
Since their 27-22 victory over Perpignan in the opening round of the Heineken Cup, Gloucester have won just one match in seven and enter a key series against Edinburgh looking to revive their season and keep their European prospects on track. They travel to Murrayfield off the back of narrow Premiership defeats to Harlqeuins and Leicester which left them languishing in tenth place in the league, knowing that another loss to Edinburgh could be potentially fatal in a group also containing Perpignan and Munster.
Cardiff Blues stunned Toulon last time out in this competition but they return to European duties on a domestic slide of their own, with their struggles best summed up by their 26-26 draw with Treviso in the league - which was only secured by a late Gareth Davies penalty. Each team in Pool 2 has one win to their name and with the first of back-to-back fixtures against fellow Pro12 side Glasgow Warriors - who currently sit third in the league - to come, Cardiff will need to hit the ground running at Arms Park this Saturday to keep their European hopes alive.
Since earning promotion to the Premiership in 2010 Exeter have proved they are no pushovers but they welcome reigning European champions Toulon to Sandy Park on Saturday after defeats to Saracens and Bath, though Bernard Laporte's side are still reeling from a shutout 26-0 loss to Stade Francais in the league last weekend.
Tie of the round
Rematches of great finals always make for compelling encounters and that is certainly the case this weekend as Northampton Saints welcome Leinster - the team who broke their hearts in 2011 with a memorable 33-22 comeback victory after trailing 22-6 at half-time. Memory of that defeat still leaves a bitter taste in the mouth for any Saints fan, but everyone affiliated with the Franklin's Gardens outfit knows that both these fixtures will be a barometer of where Jim Mallinder's team really sits amongst the European elite.
Saints have exited at the group stage for two straight years since their 2011 nightmare and in a group also containing Castres they will be wary of the consequences of suffering back-to-back losses. Seven straight wins will mean little for Northampton against a side containing 14 of the Ireland side who pushed New Zealand right to the bitter end in the autumn internationals, though the Franklin's Garden faithful could play a crucial role in the Saints' biggest match of the season so far.
The bookies are not confident of a Premiership club ending England's tenure with the Heineken Cup in style, with bet365 putting Northampton and Leicester at 20/1 to win the competition outright. Top 14 duo Toulon and Toulouse are 4/1 favourites to lift the trophy. Exeter top their pool and if you think they can navigate past the reigning champions and stay at the Pool 2 summit then 9/1 is the price.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
Communication error please reload the page.
The frustrations of coaching were never more evident than after Scotland slumped to a last-minute defeat by Italy at Murrayfield on Saturday
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger welcomed a positive response to midweek European misery as his team beat Everton 2-0 at Emirates Stadium
Rafael Nadal lifted his first title in nearly nine months Sunday after defeating Juan Monaco 6-4 6-1 at the Argentina Open
Jose Mourinho was overjoyed to satisfy his hunger for silverware with a first trophy of his second spell as Chelsea manager following a 2-0 Capital One Cup final defeat of Tottenham at Wembley
Connacht gave their bid to finish in the top half of the Guinness PRO12 a big lift with a 53-5 bonus-point win over Benetton Treviso
Despite James O'Connor's impressive return to Super Rugby for the Reds, Will Genia impressed the most to claim Australian Man of the Round honours
Greg Growden assesses the impact of Stephen Larkham's coaching on the Brumbies, and how he can boost the Wallabies for the Rugby World Cup
Ireland coach Joe Schmidt won the tactical battle and set his team on course for a shot at the Grand Slam. Tom Hamilton reports from Dublin
With the World Cup only a few months away, the last thing France needed was doubts over the future of their coach, writes Huw Richards
They came to Murrayfield looking to put down a marker, but Scotland were sent home with their tails between their legs, writes Tristan Barclay
Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers says Daniel Sturridge's fitness must be managed properly so that the striker "doesn't break"
Ander Herrera wishes he could play every game for Manchester United but manager Louis van Gaal's "philosophy" will ultimately restrict his match time
Manchester United goalkeeper David de Gea has dismissed speculation he has fallen out with manager Louis van Gaal
Louis van Gaal admits Manchester United have fallen behind Chelsea and Manchester City this season because they have lacked a prolific goalscorer
Referee Roger East has told the body responsible for officiating standards in English football it was not a case of mistaken identity when he sent off Sunderland's Wes Brown at Manchester United
The PGA Tour swings into Los Angeles for the Northern Trust Open and the season steps up a gear with some notable names coming out of winter hibernation
An honest England side have been searching for the heir to Jason Robinson for nearly a decade. Step forward Jonathan Joseph, writes Simon Barnes
We rewind to 2003 when Real Madrid brought a park attitude to their Champions League clash with Manchester United and played out a 4-3 thriller
Chris Eubank Jr tells Inside Boxing of his hopes of a rematch with Billy Joe Saunders - and a dream showdown with the formidable Gennady Golovkin
Piers Morgan has declared himself "hurt" over former Arsenal goalkeeper Bob Wilson's claims that he is not an authentic fan of the club