Northampton Saints are bidding to create a slice of Heineken Cup history by becoming the first club to go unbeaten through a tournament – but they will have to see off a “class” outfit in their semi-final clash with Perpignan at stadium:mk on Sunday if they are to move a giant step closer to making it nine from nine.
The 2000 Heineken Cup champions made it seven from seven when they beat Ulster Rugby 23-13 in Milton Keynes in the quarter-finals but former All Blacks full back Bruce Reihana is quick to point out that Perpignan have contested a Heineken Cup final, losing to Toulouse in 2003, and have won eight of their last nine matches, including their 29-25 quarter-final victory over Toulon in Barcelona.
“This semi-final is absolutely massive for the club and for the supporters,” said Reihana. “We have worked so hard all season to get to this point and we are all hugely excited about playing Perpignan in the semi-finals.
“Any side you meet in the last four are going to be at the top of their game and Perpignan are no different. We watched their quarter-final and they are a class outfit so we will spend the week looking at them and preparing for the game.
“Coming through the Pool stage as the only unbeaten team was a fantastic achievement and of course we are using that and taking confidence from it going into the one-off games but we know just how tough Perpignan will be on Sunday.
“The Heineken Cup is a really special tournament, bringing the top sides from around Europe together in one competition, and the level of rugby really increases from the domestic scene.
“It is a step up – it is almost Test match level – and that is why getting so far in the tournament is so exciting.
“This is a huge chance for us and a chance to really step up to this level. To have had a home quarter-final was great, exactly what you need when you play knock-out rugby, and getting the semi-final back at stadium:mk is perfect.
“Milton Keynes is only just down the road from Northampton and it has become a ‘home’ ground with the supporters packing it out like they do at every stadium we go to.
“Our support is fantastic. They follow us everywhere and they certainly give you the lift you need. It’s going to be tough, but playing at home has to be an advantage and we have to go into the semi-final with confidence.
“There is a good feeling around the town and we are all just waiting for the game to kick-off – the excitement is building and we know we have a very capable squad.
“We target every competition we play in and, as professional athletes, that is the only thing you can do, so we started the season in three competitions and we targeted all of them.
“We know how massive the Heineken Cup is so to have made it to the quarters and then through to the semis is a massive achievement.”
Perpignan are the only Heineken Cup 2011 semi-finalist not to go all the way and lift European club rugby’s most coveted trophy – and joint captain Nicolas Mas accepts that Northampton Saints present a formidable challenge in their stadium:mk Sunday showdown in Milton Keynes.
Perpignan have played in a tournament final, beaten 22-17 by Toulouse in Dublin in 2003, and this is only their third time in the last four from their 10 seasons of Heineken Cup participation.
“The Heineken Cup semi-final promises to be a really tough game – especially as the Saints are hosting it in this new venue,” said the French international prop.
“Their team has done brilliantly in the tournament this season, winning all seven of their matches.
“It will be a big challenge for us to go and play there but we will go there armed with a huge appetite and strong ambitions because we want to do well and you don’t get involved in matches like this every day.
“Our progression in the Heineken Cup this season is much better than in previous years so that in itself is most satisfactory for the club.
“First we qualified for the knock-out stages – which is a considerable achievement – and now we are about to play for our ticket for the final.
“That is why we are highly motivated to play the semi-final. We won’t let go and a couple more steps and we are there.
“Just like ourselves, Northampton Saints are a very physical outfit, especially up front with their captain Dylan Hartley and other internationals in their powerful pack.
“Then they have other English aces in the backs like Ben Foden and Chris Ashton so we are in for a really tough contest.”
Perpignan took their quarter-final to Barcelona and their 29-25 Olympic Stadium win over Toulon ensured their debut tournament match across the border was a major success.
They had a quick fire rematch with Toulon in the Top 14 last weekend with the Round 25 match at Stade Felix-Mayol ending in a 43-12 home win.
“The quarter-final in Barcelona was something that we had been waiting to do for such a long time,” he said.
“That meant we had a lot of pressure on our shoulders, so to come out as the winners was such an achievement and a delight for the players, coaches, club and the fans.
“Anything can happen now in the Heineken Cup and we will do our utmost to go all the way and have no regrets.
“If we can manage to qualify for the final by beating Northampton Saints I would quite fancy Toulouse to win their semi-final against Leinster so we can have an all-French final at the Millennium Stadium next month.
“However, there is still a lot of hard work to be done before then.”