Northampton Saints and Munster – both former Heineken Cup champions – clash at Thomond Park in a heavyweight Pool 1 clash on Saturday with Saints captain Dylan Hartley predicting a titanic forward battle in a contest that is repeat of the 2000 Heineken Cup final.
Northampton won that one 11 years ago but it is honours even from their four tournament meetings, which include a 33-19 Munster home win in the 2010 quarter-finals.
“Not many teams go over there and win in Limerick so there is plenty of motivation for us,” said the England hooker.
“The match will be between two powerful packs – it all starts up front – and that is an area we pride ourselves on and, as ever, we will again be looking to dominate.”
Northampton Saints’ last Heineken Cup appearance was the 33-22 defeat to Leinster in the 2011 final at the Millennium Stadium and the hurt is still raw for the 2000 champions of Europe.
“It is not the pain of that defeat that is motivating me – if you are in the Heineken you want to win it – and as we have learnt over the last few years it is never easy in this tournament,” he said.
“We had a great run to the final last year but you have to play for 80 minutes and we did not do that.
“We went 20 points up and threw it away – and threw away the Heineken Cup as well.
“Obviously it hurts but it does not get any bigger than that in terms of big match experience and we will learn from that.
“In terms of intensity – as it was in the final last year, as well as the quarters and semis – those games are as close to internationals as you can get. But the coolest thing about it is you are playing with your mates and to be on that stage with your mates is pretty special because it all goes up a notch between the Pool and knock-out stages of rugby.
“However, Munster have also been to Heineken Cup finals and won some and lost some and as a group they have been through those same disappointments while also being together for a long time.
“As a squad we are still quite young with our best years ahead of us. We have not lost anyone and we have added to the squad. That gives us more depth, which we needed, as we were playing pretty must the same team every week.”
While Hartley admits the players are still hurting, what Director of Rugby Jim Mallinder reveals was “the toughest defeat I have ever had” the pain simply won’t go away, “it is not just about weeks, it is more like years,” he said.
“It is an opportunity of a lifetime and you have lost one – and as a player or coach you will never be involved in too many Heineken Cup finals.
“That will never go away but the good thing is you always have the chance to get there again and that is the way we are looking at it.
“We came 40 minutes short and, as we had not done much in the week before the final, the energy in the first half was absolutely outstanding.
“But I saw the fatigue at half time, the lads had given everything and ran out of steam in the second half, it was as simple as that.
“We are already doing different things, we have built up our squad and we are swopping players around a bit more, giving them breaks when we can.”
Northampton Saints director of rugby Jim Mallinder says he is expecting a step up in intensity for tomorrow’s Heineken Cup opener at Munster’s Thomond Park.
The Saints locked horns with Munster three times during the 2009/10 season. And while Mallinder commented that changes in personnel and team development meant that it was difficult to draw comparisons between that campaign and this year’s match up, there are some things which do not change, not least the level which the Saints will have to play at if they are to get a positive result in Limerick.
“There has been a step up in training this week and we’ve needed it,” he said. “The Heineken Cup games are of a higher intensity than the league and we’ve got to make sure that we play at that intensity when we go across to Munster this weekend.
“Munster will go into the game knowing that they can beat anybody, especially at Thomond Park, which is a fantastic arena with a terrific atmosphere. Winning your home games is crucial in the Heineken Cup and Munster will be under pressure to get a result. But we’re putting ourselves under the same pressure and we want the win as well.
“We are going into the game in good spirits after our recent run of results. Our team has a bit more experience than it has in the past and hopefully we will be able to put the lessons of the past into practice on Saturday evening.”
Saturday’s game is being shown on Sky Sports 1/HD1 and on Sky 3D. You will also be able to follow the action on the Saints’ official Facebook page and get score updates every 10 minutes straight to your mobile phone via the club’s Twitter feed.
NORTHAMPTON SAINTS TEAM TO PLAY MUNSTER
Saturday, November 12th, 2011
Kick off 6:00pm
15 Ben FODEN
14 Chris ASHTON
13 Jon CLARKE
12 James DOWNEY
11 Vasily ARTEMYEV
10 Ryan LAMB
9 Lee DICKSON
1 Soane TONGA’UIHA
2 Dylan HARTLEY (capt)
3 Brian MUJATI
4 Courtney LAWES
5 Mark SORENSON
6 Calum CLARK
7 Tom WOOD
8 Roger WILSON
16 Mike HAYWOOD
17 Alex WALLER
18 Paul DORAN JONES
19 Samu MANOA
20 Phil DOWSON
21 Martin ROBERTS
22 Stephen MYLER
23 George PISI