Northampton need ‘appreciation and respect’ for Croke Park history ahead of semi-final with Leinster

English province have been learning about history of stadium in anticipation of becoming first English club side to play there

General view of Munster and Leinster fans at Croke Park in 2009. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Northampton have been learning about the history of Croke Park in anticipation of becoming the first English club side to play at the home of Gaelic sport when they clash with Leinster on Saturday.

Saints visit the 82,300 Dublin stadium for a Champions Cup semi-final that matches the best teams in England and Ireland.

Director of rugby Phil Dowson believes crucial to success is an understanding of the history of Croke Park, which is steeped in national symbolism as the site of the 1920 Bloody Sunday massacre that took place during the Irish War of Independence.

Northampton’s Irish strength and conditioning coach Eamonn Hyland gave a presentation on its background to the squad on Monday and while Dowson stresses “we are not playing against ghosts”, he knows the venue will have special meaning for Leinster and their fans.


“It’s absolutely fundamental that we have an appreciation of the significance of Croke Park, both culturally and historically, to the Irish battle for independence and to their psyche,” Dowson said.

“It’s mainly important because we should have an understanding of the history, regardless of whether we are playing rugby there or not.

“But we should also understand the influence it will have on their playing group, the crowd and the implications for that around the atmosphere.

“At the same time we are not playing against ghosts. We need an appreciation and respect for the history, but then we have to get our game on the field. We give the occasion the respect it deserves by flying in.”

Fin Smith practices his kicking during the Northampton Saints training session held at the cinch Stadium at Franklin's Gardens. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty

Only one previous club rugby match has been held at Croke Park when Leinster thumped Munster 25-6 in 2009 – a victory that signalled the balance of power in Irish rugby titling from Limerick to Dublin.

Leinster went on to win the first of their four European titles that year and a side populated with Ireland internationals are favourites to reach the final for the eighth time.

Fin Smith will be pulling the strings for Northampton’s own bid to be involved in next month’s Tottenham Hotspur Stadium showpiece and the England outhalf insists Saints are ready for the occasion.

“I was pretty moved by the lesson on Croke Park and was sitting there with goosebumps – which I was not expecting on a Monday morning. It was a great tone-setter for the week,” Smith said.

“Eamon is a proud Irishman and he did a real good job of it. He’s not the type of guy who usually talks in meetings, but he’s earned himself another slot if he wants it. It was very impressive!

“It was a real eye-opener for the history and how hostile it’s probably going to be. But it was good to find that out at the start of the week rather than when I’m taking my first kick at goal!

“It’s going to be hostile and tough against a great side. We’re going to need each other and need to stay tight. If there are 23 of us who believe, that’s all we care about.”

Northampton have doubts over wing Ollie Sleightholme and back row Lewis Ludlam with respective concussion and shoulder issues.