Northampton Saints a teak-tough test for Leinster

But Munster at Thomond Park likely to prove a bridge too far for Perpignan

Liam Toland charges at the Northampton defence during the European Cup clash in October 2000. Leinster registered a 14-8 win over the then reigning Heineken Cup holders at Franklin’s Gardens.  Photo: Tom Honan/Inpho

Liam Toland charges at the Northampton defence during the European Cup clash in October 2000. Leinster registered a 14-8 win over the then reigning Heineken Cup holders at Franklin’s Gardens. Photo: Tom Honan/Inpho

Fri, Dec 6, 2013, 09:00

Was I seeing things in the Millennium Stadium last weekend or was the first scrum in the Wales v Australia match six minutes into the second half? What an extraordinary insight into the skill levels on show which led to seven tries in a top level international; extraordinary!

As Leonard Cohen sings; It seems so long ago since I found myself in Franklin’s Gardens with Leinster; 13 years in fact.

Professionalism was but five years old and, although an extremely talented team, Leinster were learning the new world. The game was won 14-8 which severely dented the then European Champions, Saints, in a two way leg: away wins do that. Beating the reigning cup champions was one thing but that we were down to 13 men (Trevor Brennan and Gary Halpin sinbinned; fancy that!) made our victory incredible.

Connacht’s current coach Pat Lam captained the Saints in the Gardens. A week later we were down 17-25 at half-time and in massive trouble. Their hooker from week one, Steve Thompson, started at blindside wing forward and their openside, Budge Poutney ,captained the team in Lam’s absence. What a game it was – as Leinster finally won 40-31.

Focused discipline
Although Leinster are now a finely-tuned winning machine, I think tomorrow’s game will be even more testing than 2000. There’s obviously style aplenty out wide (George North) but there’s an air of focused discipline about the Saints pack that worries me; most notably Courtney Lawes who has built on his crazy athleticism and barnstorming smash tackling by adding a real decision-making discipline.

This keeps him in the game longer. He’s more effective and ultimately the man to watch. Huge credit too, to his hooker, Dylan Hartley who has matured enormously over recent months. Saints have the best try differential in their league – this is a tough, tough match for Leinster.

With Rob Penney’s contract negotiations on the agenda, Munster face Perpignan.

French Top 14 teams always win their home games, especially the top, Top 14 teams! Stade Francais minced Toulon 23-0 in Paris. Hence Perpignan’s result at home in Stade Aime Giral, albeit to Clermont, last week was very strange. The then top four teams were very tight and were all on the road; opportunity Perpignan.

Clermont, on the road, had the tough Scarlets matches ahead, so big names were missing; Sitiveni Sivivatu, Wesley Fofana, Julien Bonnaire, Benjamin Kayser, while Brock James was on the bench.

Put simply, the bookies have a 13-point spread on Sunday. Based on what I’ve seen of Perpignan, their injury list, an away fixture in Thomond Park and away fixtures to Castres and Stade Francais in the Top 14, I’d be hugely disappointed if Munster don’t perform and win by a comfortable margin exceeding 13 points.

Perpignan do have a lineout. Clermont were obviously conscious of its threat and especially Luke Charteris as every one of the Clermont lineouts were shortened (first 4 short, 5th quick throw, 6, 7 short). Countering this, Perpignan put number 8 into the air; funnily limiting Charteris’s impact in defence.

A huge attacking opportunity exists off these subsequent short lineouts as Perpignan loose forwards are totally uncomfortable with defending the space inside their outhalf.

Adding to that, Perpignan put their scrumhalf in the tram tracks and hooker as scrum half at the tail. An off-the-top Munster lineout targeting loose head Sebastien Taofifenua in defence would be beautiful. How big is he?

On kick-off receptions, Perpignan will rumble infield several times to create a kicking angle and possible cheap exit from deep. Munster’s fringe defence should not switch off. And Munster’s back three must be aware Perpignan will quickly kick into green grass on gaining turnovers.

It’s hard to know at times is their kicking game purposefully missing touch or just poor kicking! They missed touch five times inside 19 minutes last week. Munster’s fullback will have plenty of opportunity to counter. With this in mind, I’m especially interested in Rob Penney’s policy in this regard; is there a counter attack policy?

Mostly lateral
Of course Perpignan score tries but their back line attack is relatively smooth with each ball carrier looking to test every tackle. Their attack is mostly lateral and going the same way; all powering through contact. Hence it’s a tough tackle to make physically but far from sophisticated.

When they went for a more technical offloading system their errors multiplied. However around the fringe Munster should employ the chop tackle to stop their fatties – especially off their attacking lineout option when Taofifenua goes for a rumble.

At scrum time Taofifenua cocks his ass outward with a weak bind and angles in. Behind him Charteris scrums way too high where the slightest nudge from Munster will pop Charteris up, totally weakening Taofifenua. This is too good a chance for Munster with Clermont’s 35th minute try coming from a messed up Perpignan attacking scrum at the other end two minutes earlier.

Perpignan are serious battlers and powerful in contact but lack the technical back line unit attacking skills to exploit opportunities. Add an away fixture such as Sunday to the mix, upcoming Top 14 battles and injuries, unless they are extremely combative Thomond Park should be too much for the French where pressure will expose their lack of accuracy; 13 points?

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