Wednesday 29 January 2020

Past results will count for nothing as new-look Saints start to hit top form

Leinster head coach Leo Cullen
Leinster head coach Leo Cullen

Leinster will put their unbeaten start to the season on the line against the Premiership leaders in what amounts to a tantalising prospect.

Northampton Saints have been flying high in their domestic competition, winning four from five to go with their victories in the Champions Cup over Lyon at home and Benetton away.

As a challenge, it is on a par with what they had to overcome at Stadium de Gerland in Lyon two weeks ago, except for three mitigating factors.

Leinster have won all three tests at Franklin's Gardens in the European Cup in 2000, 2013 and 2016, the last two by an average of a mind-blowing 30 points.

This is reason enough for Cullen (below) to be cautious about what Leinster will come across tomorrow afternoon (KO: 1.0, BT Sport 2).

There are scores to be settled, even if just five Northampton forwards remain at the club from the starting 15 in 2016.

The front row of Alex Waller, Mikey Haywood and Paul Hill, lock Courtney Lawes and the old stager Tom Wood are on the roster, all but Hill starting against Lyon in the first round.

In reality, the aggregate return of points from these back-to-back weeks will confirm or confound Leinster's play-off aspirations as Lyon and Benetton are already also-rans.

"In certain circumstances, a losing bonus point is not the end of the world," said coach Leo Cullen.

"Whatever situation we find ourselves in, it's just about making sure we try and maximise every point we can from the fixture.

"It's not trying to talk in cliches here, but it's that piece of Europe that is a little bit unique isn't it?

"Just trying to get everything we can possible from all these games."

The common-sense tactic is to play down Leinster's past record there by playing up what Northampton are doing right now.

And that is an easy sell given the Saints personnel and how thy are playing.

Leinster's youth movement is one that is being followed by their hosts.

Cullen has noticed how the East-Midlands club has cut its cloth to measure the resources they have at Franklin's Gardens.

"They have a lot of young players coming through that they've given a lot of chances to, very similar to what we've tried to do," he said. 

"They are probably one of the first English teams for a while to really have that model."

The dangers of dicing with the Premiership salary cap has been exposed for its flaws in recent weeks.

It looks like Saints, so long the underachievers in England, have full committed to their New Zealand coach.

"Chris Boyd had a lot of experience with a very successful team like the Hurricanes, all that they achieved. 

"If you look at their playing squad, it's almost a bit of a mirror image of that, isn't it?"

They are certainly backboned by a wealth of winning knowledge from as recently as the World Cup last month.

"They have experienced players. (Cobus) Reinach was away with South Africa and Bigger (with Wales) - very experienced half-backs. 

"The Franks brothers (Ben and Owen), who have won Worlds Cups, plural, between them," added Cullen.

"Outside backs like (Taqele) Naiyaravoro and Matt Proctor, he's been a real standout in Super Rugby over the past few seasons.

"I'm not sure how much you guys know about him, but he's certainly a player that we would have admired greatly."

The signing of Reinach in 2017 and Biggar and coach Boyd in 2018 gave Northampton all the guidance they need to make an early season splash.

"We're starting to get a collective style that everyone's happy with; everyone's bought into it and we're getting better at playing it," said Boyd.

"Our game is based around space. As long as we get space, we'll be okay."

There you have it in a New Zealand nutshell.

It is up to Leinster to close down the space in order to close out the game.

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